In his new book, Blood on the Flag, Major Nigel Bovey, editor of The War Cry (UK), explores the fascinating history of the Skeleton Army - a militant group that attacked early Salvationists - and what we can learn from The Salvation Army's response.


In Blood on the Flag, you tell the dramatic story of how early-day Salvationists bravely faced and overcame opposition at the hands of the notorious Skeleton Army. What motivated you to explore this particular part of the Army's history in England?

Blood on the Flag coverI think there were two influences. One goes all the way back to my childhood. I can remember my father, who was a local officer at Exeter Temple Corps in Devon, showing me an old Army flag that had a bloodstain on it. He told me that this was the blood of a Salvationist who had been attacked by the Skeleton Army.

Second, when I was writing my book The Mercy Seat Revisited, in my research I came across a copy of the front page of a newspaper called The Skeleton, set up by the Skeleton Army in Honiton, like a rival to The War Cry. It was all about the Skeleton Army and its fights with Salvationists. Now, because I've been the editor of The War Cry since 1999, I was interested in somebody trying to set up a newspaper in opposition to it.

This and my childhood influence of seeing that bloodstained flag, and what happened in my home city, all the violence, made me want to start a new book. That's where the inspiration came from.

So that flag actually inspired the title of your book, where you also mention that one of your great-great-uncles played his part in that fierce battle?

Yes, that's right. In fact, another trophy, kept in the corps office in Exeter, was a photograph that showed Evangeline Booth, William Booth's daughter, with about 21 other Salvationists who had been stopped during a march in Torquay in 1888 and imprisoned for obstruction. One of those Salvationists pictured is Frank Bovey. Through my more recent research I discovered that this was my grandfather's uncle, so my great-great-uncle, and he went to prison in Exeter. The Founder's daughter didn't, although she wanted to, but the authorities decided that, if William Booth's daughter went to prison, it was bad publicity for them.
On balance, people liked what The Salvation Army did, but they wished they did it quietly within their halls

In the introduction of your book you say you have written it looking through the eyes and pens of secular reporters. You are currently the editor of The War Cry. I imagine there are plenty of reports from that time recorded in The War Cry – don't you trust them?

(He laughs…) Don't you like me in my job? Anybody who tries to write a book about history should be aware that it is dangerous just taking one source of information. You have to look beyond one source to get a fuller picture. And the more sources you have, the fuller picture you get, and the fuller picture you can convey to the reader.

Of course, I also went to old copies of The War Cry, but its message is different from secular press reports; it is to encourage the persecuted church. When you read The War Cry reports of what happened — where stones are thrown and halls are smashed, where Salvationists are beaten up, arrested and imprisoned — you don't get the detail. What you get is great victories, "Hallelujah, the Kingdom is extending" or "It was rough but souls were saved." That is the angle, or these days we would say "spin"; if we are being harsh, we might even say that is propaganda. That was the message The War Cry was giving to its own people, "Keep going, the fight is worth it. It is tough but the crown is there."

The secular press takes a much more objective, journalistic approach, very similar to the British press today. That's where you find how many people were on the streets; the names of those who were arrested; and the transcript of the court cases, of how much they were fined or how long their prison sentence was. And that's also where you find, through the comments of the editor and letters from readers, what the public thought about this new Salvation Army. Some say how great it is that The Salvation Army is coming into town. Others say, "They are a nuisance, we don't want them, they spoil our peace and quiet on a Sunday." You don't get a sense of public opinion from The War Cry of the day, but you get it, and accurate information, from Victorian newspapers.

The Skeleton Army attacks early Salvationists The Skeleton Army attacks early Salvationists (click to enlarge)

Did the public actually take sides in this war between two unlike armies?

Well, it was very difficult not to take sides because this was a big thing, a big event for The Salvation Army to come to town. These were the days before television, radio and the Internet. The mass media of the time was newspapers; that's how people got their information. Things like the music hall and the public house were the centres of entertainment. When The Salvation Army came into town with its music and singing, its waving of flags and hankies, and all the rest, its preaching and its promise of salvation — this was like the circus coming to town, this was an entertainment, you knew about it.

Then of course, when the Skeleton Army started fighting the Salvationists, you knew about it, because you couldn't have moved in town. In many instances, the Skeleton Army and its supporters would take to the streets in their thousands, and maybe you got 20 or 30 Salvationists and 2-3,000 people wanting to physically abuse them and push them out of town. I identified 67 towns where this happened over a 13-year period.

Generally, opinion was divided. On balance, people liked what The Salvation Army did, but they wished they did it quietly within their halls. That's the overriding message you get from magistrates, the police and from businessmen. If the open-air meeting is outside your premises and 300 people are gathered that means customers can't get to your shop.

What were the causes of the ferocious opposition that the Army faced in those days?

In a word, "success." If we take the history of Basingstoke, some 50 miles west of London, in that town there were 50 pubs and three breweries, and the chief magistrate was a brewer by the name of William Blatch. The Army was so successful in going to the pubs, in preaching the gospel and winning women and men to Jesus, that people didn't go back to the pub. In one press report, a publican testifies that whereas he used to sell beer by the barrel, now he can't sell it by the pint. The Army was so successful in getting people out of the pubs and off alcohol, and into a fulfilled life with bread on the table, shoes on the feet and clothes on the back, that the brewing industry rebelled and publicans started to say to the ruffians, yobs, as we call them: "Here is a pint of beer. Here is some money. Go and beat up a Salvationist." That's how it started.
The Army was so successful in going to the pubs, in preaching the gospel and winning women and men to Jesus, that people didn't go back to the pub

What strategy did the Skeleton Army use in their fight against Salvationists?

"Strategy" is not the word because, unlike The Salvation Army, the Skeleton Army wasn't centrally organized. It sprung up in different towns, there were different guys calling themselves general in Whitechapel, Exeter or Honiton. Because the rail network was relatively new in the country, suddenly people were much more mobile. If there was a disturbance in one town people heard about it in the newspaper, and they could get to the next town by the railway.

What the Skeleton Army did generally was to imitate Salvationists. In Coventry in 1879, Elijah Cadman, then the corps officer, was suddenly followed around town by an outfit calling itself "2nd Squad of The Salvation Army." They wore uniforms, they had flags and instruments, and not only did they make a row behind a Salvation Army march, but they started putting words to Salvation Army tunes taken from the musicals — so there was a lot of parody going on, a lot of imitation.

The attacks of the Skeleton Army assaulting Salvationists fuelled riots in public and led to the Army being banned from assembling on the streets in several towns. Salvationists refused to accept these restrictions and many were arrested for "disturbance of the peace" and "disorderly conduct." One of them was Captain William Beatty who fought a legal battle.

Yes, this was in Weston-super-Mare in 1882. The police told Beatty he was not to assemble on the streets because he and his Salvationists were creating a public nuisance, an obstruction. Beatty refused and, eventually, the head of police took Beatty to court – and won. But then Beatty appealed. Obviously, he communicated with William Booth who sent the Army solicitor down to Somerset. The appeal was heard in London, in the High Court, and the judges ruled in Beatty's favour.

And that is still a legal precedent today in English law, quoted in the last few years, for example after an incident during an anti-globalization demonstration. Basically it says, that a legal act cannot be made illegal by the illegal actions of a third party.

What role did William Booth take in that conflict?

He took it very seriously. First of all, he always maintained, rightly, that Salvationists were doing nothing wrong. In fact, he issued orders, reminding his officers to tell their soldiers that they must not do anything that would be illegal or that would provoke reaction.

He wrote to politicians, including the Home Secretary, who is the primary law administrator in the country. He kept asking to tell the magistrates that Salvationists deserve protection. Because of what happened, if there was violence, the police tended to arrest the Salvationists, the victims, and not the Skeletons, the perpetrators, which is against natural justice in any society. If someone is beaten up, you don't arrest them, you arrest the one who is doing the hitting.

Booth recruited the support of friendly Members of Parliament who then argued against some of the laws which prohibited locally The Salvation Army marching in towns such as Hastings, Eastbourne and Torquay. He also recruited friendly journalists; the Pall Mall Gazette in particular (later, Bramwell Booth went into partnership with its editor, William T. Stead, for the Maiden Tribute exposé) was very sympathetic to the cause of Salvationists. In talking to editors, William Booth tried to get their opinion and, through them, the public opinion on the side of the Army.

The Skeleton Army The Skeleton Army

You describe this fight between the two armies a bit like a fight between David and Goliath, but finally The Salvation Army not only won the legal battle and the liberty to march and preach the gospel in public, but a number of soldiers from the Skeleton Army were saved and became soldiers of The Salvation Army.

A number did. Most notable is Charles Jeffries who was a lieutenant in the Skeleton Army. On New Year's Eve 1881, he and about 30 other Skeletons attended the watchnight service at Whitechapel Corps to disturb the meeting, but something in that meeting impressed him and he couldn't cause upset. It is said, when the prayer meeting opened, Jeffries, and then one after another of the Skeletons, voluntarily went to the penitent form, until a row of them knelt there – some crying, others laughing. Jeffries went back the next day and gave his heart to the Lord. Later, he became Chief of the Staff of The Salvation Army. So he was probably the most prominent convert that The Salvation Army would have from the Skeleton Army.

At the very beginning of your book you quote the American historian Russell Weigley, saying in Eisenhower's Lieutenants, "a day's trial by battle often reveals more of the essential nature of an army than a generation of peace." So, what do the battles early-day Salvationists fought against the Skeletons reveal about their nature?

I wish I had said that! (He laughs.) Would today's Salvationists, in the comfortable world in which many of us now live, be prepared when we go to the corps on Sunday to be confronted by hundreds of screaming, spitting, punching yobs? Would we be prepared to sit through a meeting when the windows and the roof tiles are coming in? Would we be prepared to worship on Sunday, if somebody came into the hall and threw red powder, let rats or pigeons loose, or set off fire crackers? Would we go again next Sunday and the Sunday after? Every time we put on our uniform, we would be a target. What does the "day's trial by battle," weekly reveal?

In my opinion, this was a generation of exceptionally courageous Salvationists. If they had not resisted, if they had not kept going to the corps, if they had not kept bringing the gospel to the streets, I do not think that The Salvation Army would have lasted 150 days, and this year we would not celebrate 150 years. That's what they reveal.
One of the visions early-day Salvationists had, which perhaps we have lost in this generation, is that Jesus is really going to win the world through us

This brings us to today's world and our society, and you conclude your book with some pertinent questions for our generation. Today, in most places, we are a highly respected organization, receiving much applause and support from the public for our relief activities. What do we do wrong that we don't face the same opposition today in our fight against poverty and for justice?

To me, it is not a question of what we do wrong. William Booth never said to his troops, "you must make yourself martyrs." In fact, he wrote against it, he said, "we are not seeking martyrdom." One of the visions early-day Salvationists had, which perhaps we have lost in this generation, is that Jesus is really going to win the world through us. I have a chapter in the book where I look at some of the songs of those early Salvationists… "We are an Army fighting for the glorious King" … "For the world, for the world, Jesus died, Jesus died."

They had a very focused vision. It was almost like the salvation of the world depended upon them preaching the gospel, whatever the opposition. That God needed them to reach out to the person who hadn't any money or clothes or shoes, whose life was wasted on gin, whose husband was a womanizer or a wife-beater, somebody who wasted all their life on opium or gambling. William said to his wife, Catherine: "These are our people." And his contemporaries had the vision that they really were instruments of Jesus to win the world. It is for each of us to decide whether we still have that vision.

Should we be more militant?

One of the things I have learned from my historical research is that culture is time-based. Our whole Salvation Army metaphors of militarism grew in London, started in the heart not only of the capital of the United Kingdom, but also probably of three quarters of the world, the British Empire. From the 1880s to the 1890s, there was a lot of military expansion. There wouldn't have been many families whose sons, fathers, uncles or grandfathers hadn't served in the military. We don't have that any more, thank God! Just as the military metaphor fitted very well, very easily 150 years ago, sometimes we wonder if we should call ourselves an army? Do we prefer "church"?

So what you find is that you can learn lessons from the past but you cannot transport the culture of the past into the present.

Should we be more militaristic? Should we be more militant? In what way? We speak with governments, we challenge laws, we lobby for social justice, we are involved on the streets, we are involved in many hundreds of towns in this territory and right around the Army world. We are an army, we are a part of the Christian Church that believes in involvement with the big bad world. We are Christians with rolled-up sleeves. If militant means involvement, we are militant.

Do you consider yourself a brave man? Are you a brave Salvationist?

Are you asking if I've been beaten because I am a Salvationist? The answer is "yes." I've taken a kicking for being a Salvationist. Bravery is not a commodity that we can store up in advance. It arrives when we need it.

This article originally appeared in The Officer, July-August 2015. Reprinted with permission.


On Friday, September 4, 2015, Jo Bovey said:

What can I say? I'm proud yet humbled to be his Mum!

On Thursday, September 3, 2015, Allen Graham said:

When I was a member of "The Salvation Army congregation approximately 28 years ago in Lisburn. Co. Antrim." I remember Captain Nigel Bovey when he was distributing the Salvation Army in a pub near Lisburn, someone took his collecting box from him and emptied it all over the floor of the bar, when the Captain bent down to retrieve the money he received a kick in the face from this same person. The Captain all 6 foot five inches of him got up and the whole bar must have wondered how hard this young officer was going to hit the guy who had kicked him in the face, said to his assailant " I forgive you". What a testimony? His attacker was barred from the Pub and the Salvation Army officer was told that they would always be welcome.
This is from memory and I know it had a profound effect on me and many others.

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