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Booth, Williamlocked

  • Frank Prochaska

William Booth (1829–1912)

by Olive Edis and Katherine Edis, 1902

Booth, William (1829–1912), founder of the Salvation Army, was born at Sneinton, a suburb of Nottingham, on 10 April 1829, one of five children of Samuel Booth (1775–1842), a speculative builder, and his second wife, Mary Moss (b. 1791). He was sent to Biddulph's School, Nottingham, but it failed to turn him into either a gentleman or a scholar; at thirteen, because of family poverty, he was apprenticed to a pawnbroker in a squalid part of Nottingham. Although he proved an able assistant to his employer, he spoke of this experience in later life with bitterness. Soon after his apprenticeship began his father, whose business affairs had gone from bad to worse, died; the family, struggling to make ends meet, moved into a shop. Booth's 'blighted childhood', as he always called it, left a powerful impression on his mind.

Booth drifted out of the Church of England, but there was little to suggest any marked change in his religious thinking before his father's death. He seems to have been stirred politically by the oratory of Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor (1796–1855), who visited Nottingham during the election of 1842. Deeply affected by the daily spectacle of ragged children crying for bread in the streets, Booth ranged himself on the side of the Chartists. A frequent attendant at Nottingham's Wesley Chapel, he was also coming under the sway of Methodism; in 1844, with his conscience tortured by a piece of sharp practice in which he had overreached some of his fellow assistants at the pawnbroker's shop, he made public confession of his sin and underwent conversion. Had it not been for his conscience, and the effect of confession, he might have become a radical. As it was, religion made him, from a political point of view, a die-hard conservative.

The impressionable teenager came under the spellbinding oratory of the American Methodist James Caughey, who visited Nottingham in 1846. Booth joined a group of revivalists who conducted religious services in the streets of the city. He was then seventeen and distinguished by his height, pale face, black hair, and eloquence. In 1849 he moved to London in search of better paid work, but failing to find it he was obliged to go as assistant to a pawnbroker in Walworth. He took at this time several religious vows, which reveal an uncompromising spiritual intention, and almost starved himself in order to send money back to his mother and sisters. He devoted his leisure to religion and began to attract the attention of local Methodists, one of whom, E. J. Rabbits, a rich boot manufacturer, persuaded him to become a lay preacher. It was this boot manufacturer who introduced him into the family of a carriage builder living in Clapham, where he met the woman who was so powerfully to influence his subsequent career.

Catherine Mumford (1829–1890) [see Booth, Catherine], the daughter of the carriage builder, was an invalid who spent most of her time on a sofa. She had a cultivated mind to a degree unusual among people in suburban circles: while she admired Booth's character, she deplored his lack of culture. A child of the dissenting chapel, her religion was respectable, if not conventional. She criticized Booth's sermons, gave him devotional books, and tried to steady his religious ardour. He admitted his lack of learning, but not even her persuasions could tame his 'love for souls', which was the master passion of his life. In return, Booth gave her a wider outlook and gradually weaned her mind from its subservience to convention: the suburban bluestocking took fire from the provincial ignoramus. When Booth became an itinerant Methodist preacher in 1852 he consulted her about his sermons, sent her his clothes for mending, and exhorted her to approve of revivalist methods. They married on 16 June 1855. All of their children, three sons and four daughters, the eldest of whom was the preacher Catherine Booth-Clibborn (1858–1955), were caught in the whirl of evangelicalism.

By the time of his marriage Booth had established something of a reputation as a travelling preacher of Methodism, but his unorthodox practices and violent rhetoric in the pulpit had made him enemies. At the end of nine years in the ministry, rather than submit to the authority of his church, he broke with Methodism and launched out as an independent revivalist. His wife joined in this work, and it was at her suggestion that he went to London in 1865 and started the Christian Mission in Whitechapel. It was largely by accident that the institution changed its name to the Salvation Army. The phrase 'a volunteer army' as a description for the mission came under discussion in 1878, and, under pressure from his son (William) Bramwell Booth (1856–1929), William Booth altered it in favour of 'a salvation army'. The new name, complete with the definite article, appeared for the first time in the Christian Mission Magazine for September 1878.

The change of name was fortuitous, for as a result of it came the military titles and uniforms that transformed what was just another parochial city mission into a worldwide engine of revivalism. Booth himself initially resisted the army trappings, but an institution which soon became identified with authority, regulation, and family control was well suited to his autocratic temperament. A secret of the movement's success was the use of working-class officers to invade working-class districts. This practice, which had been used by other London charities, most notably the Ranyard Mission, proved highly effective for the Salvation Army. By the end of the nineteenth century there were 100,000 soldiers in Britain, mostly in urban areas. As the movement spread abroad, Booth followed the army flag—including tours of the United States in 1886 and India in 1892—and received the hospitality of kings and ambassadors.

Booth always held that you cannot make a man clean by washing his shirt, and his social work was largely an excuse for converting souls. (In a time when medicine could do so little for the body, the needs of the soul demanded more attention.) He had an unusual degree of social pity and admitted the influence of the environment on individual cases of distress, but he genuinely believed that eternal punishment was the fate of all those who died without conversion. A stern millenarian, his aim was to convert the masses. He did so with little reference to religious doctrine, of which he was himself largely ignorant: his was a brash, Bible-based, open-air Christianity, suited to the realities of slum life. Under the influence of his wife the Salvation Army adopted a non-sacramental form of worship. By banning the eucharist Booth may have alienated the orthodox, but he attracted the multitude.

Booth entertained an almost savage prejudice against science and philosophy. In everything intellectual he was an obscurantist of the most pronounced type, and in everything religious a ‘Hebraist’ of uncompromising narrowness. He condemned cricket and football as sharply as card-playing and horse-racing. Further, there was something of the casuist in his nature which enabled him, with no shock to his conscience, to conciliate mammon in the interest of his philanthropy. He had warm friends among bookmakers, commercial millionaires, and the aristocracy. Once he made Cecil Rhodes kneel down and pray with him in a railway carriage. He took tea with Gladstone at Hawarden in 1896 and had an interview with Edward VII, whom he greatly admired, in 1904. The king asked what the churches now thought of him: he replied with a dour humour, 'Sir, they imitate me' (Begbie, 1.113).

Booth was the champion of the degraded poor of the great cities and his work illustrated that the religious instincts of the public were not much changed since Wesley's day. He beat his showman's drum in what he believed to be God's service. As a consequence he became the target of ridicule, while some of the army's more exuberant practices, particularly the marches and band playing, became a cause of rioting. Assaults on Salvationists were common and several were 'promoted to Glory' by stones or beatings. It was partly because of his wife's influence that the army's rescue work among prostitutes was undertaken solely by women and that the movement encouraged a degree of female equality that was unusual among religious organizations of the day. Characteristically Booth hung back from a crusade for sexual purity which his son Bramwell persuaded William T. Stead (1849–1912) to undertake in the Pall Mall Gazette. In spite of all his platform outspokenness, he was a timorous administrator. Disdainful of balance sheets, he used his authority chiefly to safeguard the army's spiritual activities. Bramwell was the real organizer: Booth called him his Melanchthon.

Deeper acquaintance with the distresses of the urban poor led Booth to become a social reformer. In 1890 he published In Darkest England and the Way Out, a classic in the literature of poverty. With its proposals for the relief of unemployment and homelessness, it contained more practical advice than the earlier surveys of urban deprivation carried out by Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) or the Revd Andrew Mearns (1837–1925). Though written largely by Stead, it was full of Booth's inventive ideas, including city colonies, co-operative farms, the poor man's lawyer, and an emigration scheme, complete with an emigration bureau. It created a sensation, contributing to a wider knowledge of social ills and reminding the churches of their social responsibilities.

Though dismissed by intellectuals and attacked by T. H. Huxley (1825–1895), Booth received liberal financial support from the British public for many of his schemes. What distinguished him as a social reformer was a willingness to cope from day to day with an awesome level of endemic disease, unemployment, and other social ills, which were then less well understood. As he put it, he had nothing against utopianism, collectivist or individualist, but 'here in our Shelters last night were a thousand hungry, workless people. … It is in the meantime that the people must be fed, that their life's work must be done or left undone forever' (Booth, 79–80).

It is worth noting that Booth, despite his vehemence and striking physical presence, was of a singularly delicate constitution. He had a physical horror of dirt, even of shabbiness, and from his youth was noticeable for a meticulous attention to personal cleanliness. Noxious smells made him ill. The sight of suffering children brought tears to his eyes: it was this extreme sensitivity to suffering which made him so effective in unveiling society's darker corners. He saw sharply what others scarcely noticed at all, and he felt as an outrage what others considered to be natural. William James, the psychologist, cites Booth as an authority for the doctrine 'that the first vital step in saving outcasts consists in making them feel that some decent human being cares enough for them to take an interest in the question whether they are to rise or sink' (W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, new edn, 1985, 203).

Restless, harsh, and with a gift for self-advertisement Booth had the temperament of a prophet, and like other prophets he had a tendency to scowl and to spend other people's money. Booth himself described his explosive temper as 'Booth blood'. Family secessions and his wife's sufferings, which ended with her death from cancer in 1890, clouded his later life. Though frail in old age and suffering from blindness, he became widely venerated in Britain as a patriarch. He died on 20 August 1912, after an operation for cataract, at his home Rookstone, Lancaster Avenue, Hadley Wood, Middlesex. Some 35,000 people attended Booth's memorial service at Olympia, and he was buried on 29 August next to his wife in Abney Park cemetery, Stamford Hill, London. (William) Bramwell Booth succeeded his father as general; Evangeline Cory Booth, his sister, organized the army in Canada before taking up the post of national commander for the United States in 1904.

If he did not leave 'Darkest England' much lighter than he found it, General Booth probably changed as many lives for the better as any philanthropist of his day. A great propagandist, he inspired an organization with worldwide ramifications. Unlike most Victorian charities, the Salvation Army—godly, uniformed, and family centred—remains recognizably the institution of its founder.



  • BL, corresp., mainly family corresp., Add. MSS 64799–64806
  • Salvation Army Archives, corresp., diary, and papers
  • Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Lauinger Library, letters to Richard Wilson


  • BFINA, actuality footage


  • J. Earle-Morrell, oils, 1887, William Booth Memorial Training College, London
  • H. von Herkomer, oils, 1897, William Booth Memorial Training College, London
  • bust, 1900, NPG
  • O. & K. Edis, photograph, 1902, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. F. Joyce, photograph, 1906, NPG
  • S. Reid, pen-and-ink caricature, 1906, NPG
  • G. Wade, statue, 1929, William Booth Memorial Training College, London
  • C. Campbell, pen-and-ink caricature, NPG
  • N. D. Davis, oils, Castle Art Gallery, Nottingham
  • F. Dodd, pen-and-ink caricature, BM; copy, reverse etching, NPG
  • S. P. Hall, pencil drawing, NPG
  • H. Hampton, bronze panel, Victoria Memorial, Lancaster
  • H. Hampton, bust, Salvation Army International Headquarters, London
  • D. N. Ingles, oils, NPG; loan no 25
  • E. H. Mills, photogravure photograph, NPG; repro. in ILN [supplement]
  • O. Scholderer, pastel drawing, Castle Art Gallery, Nottingham
  • lithograph, NPG
  • photographs, Salvation Army International Headquarters, London

Wealth at Death

£2181 5s. 10d.: probate, 28 Aug 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)