William Booth, the son of a builder, was born in Nottingham in 1829. At the age of fifteen he was converted to Christianity and became a revivalist preacher. In 1849 he moved to London where he found work in a pawnbroker's shop at Walworth. Booth developed strong views on the role of church ministers believing they should be "loosing the chains of injustice, freeing the captive and oppressed, sharing food and home, clothing the naked, and carrying out family responsibilities."
In 1852 Booth met Catherine Mumford. Catherine shared William's commitment to social reform but disagreed with his views on women. On one occasion she objected to William describing women as the "weaker sex". William was also opposed to the idea of women preachers. When Catherine argued with William about this he added that although he would not stop Catherine from preaching he would "not like it". Despite their disagreements about the role of women in the church, the couple married on 16th June 1855, at Stockwell New Chapel.
It was not until 1860 that Catherine Booth first started to preach. One day in Gateshead Bethseda Chapel, a strange compulsion seized her and she felt she must rise and speak. Catherine's sermon was so impressive that William Booth changed his mind about women's preachers. Catherine soon developed a reputation as an outstanding speaker but many Christians were outraged by the idea. As Catherine pointed out at that time it was believed that a woman's place was in the home and "any respectable woman who raised her voice in public risked grave censure."
In 1865 William and Catherine founded the Whitechapel Christian Mission in London's East End to help feed and house the poor. The mission was reorganized in 1878 along military lines, with the preachers known as officers and Booth as the general. After this the group became known as the Salvation Army.
William Booth sought to bring into his worship services an informal atmosphere that would encourage new converts. Joyous singing, instrumental music, clapping of hands and an invitation to repent characterized Salvation Army meetings.
General Booth was deeply influenced by his wife Catherine Booth, who believed that women were equal to men and it was only inadequate education and social custom that made them men's intellectual inferiors. She was an inspiring speaker and helped to promote the idea of women preachers. The Salvation Army gave women equal responsibility with men for preaching and welfare work and on one occasion William Booth remarked that: "My best men are women!"
The Church of England were at first extremely hostile to Booth's activities. Lord Shaftesbury, a leading politician and evangelist, described William Booth as the "Anti-Christ". One of the main complaints against Booth was his "elevation of women to man's status". Members of the Salvation Army were imprisoned for open-air preaching and their support for the Temperance Society made them the target for gangs of men who became known as the Skeleton Army.
William andCatherine Booth were also active in the campaign to improving the working conditions of women working at the Bryant & May factory in the East End. Not only were these women only earning 1s. 4d. for a sixteen hour day, they were also risking their health when they dipped their match-heads in the yellow phosphorus supplied by manufacturers such as Bryant & May. A large number of these women suffered from 'Phossy Jaw' (necrosis of the bone) caused by the toxic fumes of the yellow phosphorus. The whole side of the face turned green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death.
Booth pointed out that most other European countries produced matches tipped with harmless red phosphorus. Bryant & May responded that these matches were more expensive and that people would be unwilling to pay these higher prices.
In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match-factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using harmless red phosphorus, the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. Whereas Bryant & May paid their workers just over twopence a gross, the Salvation Army paid their employees twice this amount.
William Booth organised conducted tours of MPs and journalists round this 'model' factory. He also took them to the homes of those "sweated workers" who were working eleven and twelve hours a day producing matches for companies like Bryant & May. The bad publicity that the company received forced the company to reconsider its actions. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced it had stopped used yellow phosphorus.
Gradually opinion on William Booth's activities changed. He was made a freeman of London, granted a honorary degree from Oxford University and in 1902 was invited to attend the coronation of Edward VII. When William Booth died in 1912, his eldest son, William Bramwell Booth, became the leader of the Salvation Army.
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Last updated: 7th May, 2002