Times Past: Torrington’s Salvation Army was born amid controversy and street fights

Torrington Town Hall on the left which played host to the first - contentious - Salvation Army meeti

Torrington Town Hall on the left which played host to the first - contentious - Salvation Army meetings in the town. - Credit: Archant

In 1878 William and Catherine Booth set up the Salvation Army to ‘go straight for souls, and go for the worst’ and their new ‘Army’ quickly grew through public meetings and stirring music.

Unfortunately the meetings also attracted hecklers who, often drunk, disrupted these events.

The ‘Army’ first appeared in North Devon at Barnstaple in October 1881 when two young women ‘of modest appearance, and devout deportment’ sang hymns and offered prayers to a large crowd.

In March 1883 the ‘Army’ held a service at Torrington Town Hall though many yobs ‘who scarcely ever attend a place of worship’ were present - but so were the police so there was no trouble.

Two weeks later another service saw ‘considerable disturbance’ from ‘a lot of ill-behaved youths’ stamping their feet.

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Banned from the town Hall the ‘Army’ obtained a barn in Well Street which was fitted up for their use and ‘several respectable persons’ joined them.

In August 1884 the ‘Army’ staged a march through the town and met a gang of youths and fighting broke out with the police noting that such marches were considered a nuisance by many Torringtonians.

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During this tussle one of the attackers was heard to say ‘now let us take him to the pavement and dash his brains out’.

In September 1884 a ‘Skeleton Army’ formed in Torrington in opposition to the Salvation Army and headed by a large banner and a brass band they began to march through the town with their numbers being estimated at around 300.

One procession was headed by three horsemen ‘carrying drawn swords’. Several days later the Torrington Salvation Army marched – only to be followed by the Skeleton Army, though the police kept the two groups apart.

In October 1884 at another march some drinkers followed the Salvationists and ‘caused great confusion and disturbance in the town’. The ‘Skeletons’ met the Salvationists in Calf Street, seized the Salvation Army flag and destroyed it.

The Salvationists, however, continued to grow and in June 1885 the funeral of ‘a young Salvation Army woman’ at Torrington attracted 500 mourners.

In May 1886 a meeting saw a visit by ‘Blind Mark’, Miss Cleave ‘the Falmouth Nightingale’ and a woman known as ‘the Gipsy Lass’ who joined a huge singing procession which passed off peacefully ‘proving that the old spirit of opposition and obstruction which was so largely manifested some months since, had died out’.

So within three years the Salvation Army had triumphed and become an accepted part of the religious landscape.

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