William Booth is best known as the founder of the Salvation Army. Although he wasn’t born in London, he did many good works in the East End, helping improve the living conditions of many people living in Whitechapel.
William Booth, the Salvation Army and Whitechapel
He also founded the Salvation Army on Whitechapel Road.
Booth was born in Nottingham in 1829. He had a relatively easy start to life, as his father was wealthy, however the family lost their money during his childhood and he had to stop his schooling at the age of 13 to become an apprentice pawnbroker.
During his apprenticeship, Booth became a Methodist, and, over time, a self-taught lay preacher. By the 1840s, he began preaching to the poor in the local area. Booth wasn’t kept on by his master pawnbroker when his apprenticeship ended and he was forced to move to London to look for work.
Booth’s Early Life in London
Booth managed to find work in pawnbroking after his move. He didn’t, however, find many opportunities as a lay preacher and he switched focus and started preaching as an open-air evangelist. Eventually, he joined the Methodist Reform Church, whose members were known as Reformers. In 1852, he started to work for them full-time as a preacher in Clapham. Over the next few years, Booth got married to Catherine Mumford and took up posts as a Methodist minister in Lincolnshire and Gateshead. By 1861, conflicts with the leadership of the ministry led him to resign and he became an independent evangelist once again.
Booth and Whitechapel
By 1865, Booth was back in the East End where he was noticed preaching outside the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel. He was asked to lead preaching meetings in the area on land known as Mile End Waste.
Later that year, he and his wife started The Christian Revival Society, which later became The Christian Mission and, ultimately, The Salvation Army. His aim was to preach that salvation was available to all people, including those living in abject poverty and need, as long as they accepted Jesus Christ.
As well as preaching, Booth also did many good works in Whitechapel to help those most in need. He felt that people living in England, particularly in poor areas like the East End, needed as much help as those living in underdeveloped countries.
Booth also understood, over time, that he couldn’t expect people to join up with him unless he gave them some incentive to do so. Preaching his own kind of religious gospel meant nothing to people who had to deal with extreme poverty, so he decided to tackle social issues to help improve conditions in the area for locals. This would also hopefully win converts to The Salvation Army.
He opened five soup kitchens, known as Food for the Million shops, which sold low cost and nutritious meals to local Eastenders. People could visit a shop at any time of the day or night to get some hot soup and could buy a three-course dinner for just sixpence. He and his wife also distributed hundreds of free meals to the poor at Christmas each year.
Social reform work in the Salvation Army also tackled other issues apart from food. Its Social Wing gave shelter to the homeless and helped people find work. It also created jobs for the unemployed by lobbying local authorities to employ local people who were out of work on public roads projects.
Bryant and May Match Factory in Bow
The Booths also became involved in helping the match girls who worked at the Bryant & May factory in Bow. The women who worked there were underpaid and overworked; they also died on the job. The factory used yellow phosphorus to make matches and its fumes caused a fatal disease known as “Phossy Jaw”. The Booths lobbied the company to switch to red phosphorus, which wasn’t dangerous. The company refused so Booth opened his own factory in the East End. The success of the factory, which paid workers fairly and treated them well, and the bad publicity for Bryant & May ultimately helped lead to a change of conditions in the manufacturer, which also then stopped using the dangerous version of phosphorus.
Deeply Unpopular with the Church of England
Not everyone liked what Booth was doing, however and he and his followers were even victims of violence and attacks. He encouraged people to avoid vices, such as drinking. The last thing that alcohol manufacturers and pubs wanted was for poor people not to drink, so this made him unpopular in those quarters. He was also deeply unpopular with the Church of England because he was happy to have women working on an equal basis to men.
In 1906, Booth was declared a Freeman of the City of London. He died in 1912 in his home in North London, although his body lay in state in the East End for three days at Clapton Congress Hall. It is estimated that 150,000 people came to pay their last respects to him there, and 40,000 people then attended his funeral at Olympia. The Salvation Army is now one of the world’s largest providers of aid.
East London History - East End Facts
I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.
Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.
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