Clash of Armies

Lambton Salvation Army

Sometimes these articles I write take an unexpected turn. This month, what began as a simple story about a church hall in Lambton led me to a little-known period of rioting in the streets fuelled by anti-religious sentiment.

The Salvation Army was founded in London by William Booth in 1865, to preach the Gospel to the poor and underprivileged, and offer aid to the destitute. The Army grew rapidly and arrived in Australia in 1881. On 9 September 1883 they “opened fire” in Lambton with a parade through the streets, followed by meetings in the Music Hall in Dickson St.

While attracting many followers, not everyone was favourably disposed. With their military designations, uniforms and noisy parading through the streets, some considered the Salvation Army to be a “burlesque of religion” and that “its vulgarities are intolerable to people of refinement.”

A semi-organised opposition arose, with a group called the Skeleton Army, also known as the White Ribbon Army. They principally expressed their displeasure by joining the Salvationists’ parades, forming their own musical bands and singing parodies of hymns. The combined noise “made the air hideous”, and confrontations in various suburbs boiled over into push and shove and brawling. In a major encounter between the Salvation and Skeleton ‘armies’ on 21 October 1883, the paper reported that over 2000 people gathered in Hunter St in a scene of “riot, obscenity, jostling, and a pandemonium of discord.”

Throughout 1884 there continued to be disturbances in the streets, however with vigilant policing, and some of its leaders briefly imprisoned for riotous behaviour, the activities of the Skeleton Army gradually waned. In contrast, the Salvation Army ranks grew. In Lambton, after considering purchasing the Music Hall, in 1886 they erected their own barracks in Grainger St.

While no longer in Lambton, 136 years later the Salvation Army remains in Newcastle, well regarded for its service to the needy. Thankfully the Skeleton Army and its discord is now a forgotten footnote in history.

Salvation Army Barracks, Grainger St Lambton. February 1898. Photo by Ralph Snowball, University of Newcastle Cultural Collections.
The Salvation Army Community Centre, Cleary St, Hamilton. November 2019.

The article above was first published in the December 2019 edition of The Local.


Additional Information

Newcastle Library Hunter Photobank has a photo captioned “Group outside Salvation Army Barracks at Lambton”. This is almost certainly an error. The photo is not of the Grainger St hall, nor can it be the Music Hall they met in during 1883-1886. The Music Hall was on the south side of Dickson St, and so the ground behind that hall would be sloping down towards the Lambton-Kerai Creek. Note that in this photo there is a building in the background at a higher elevation.

Salvation Army Barracks – unknown location.

The photo is probably of a Salvation Army hall in some other suburb, but which one? I suspected that it might have been Wallsend, but I can rule that out as I found that in Wallsend, the Salvation Army Barracks was in the low part of Nelson St, adjacent to the storm water channel. It was so close to the storm water channel they had to have a bridge to cross from the street to the front door!

Salvation Army Barracks, Nelson Street, Wallsend. 9 April 1906. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

Another possibility for the location of the Hunter Photobank photo is Tighes Hill, as a number of Trove articles indicate that the Salvation Army had a big presence and barracks in that suburb.

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
25 Mar 1882Report of persecution of the Salvation Army in England. The report is generally favourable to the Salvation Army movement, but describes the views of its detractors thus:
"It may be said for instance, that the entire conception, with its military designations and uniforms, is only a burlesque of religion ; that its vulgarities are intolerable to people of the slightest pretension to refinement, not to say decency ; and that its parade and noise and loud profession encourage a brazen-faced hypocrisy that tend to bring it into contempt."
11 Sep 1883
9 Sep 1883
"The Salvation Army 'opened fire' on Sunday last. They commenced with knee drill in the Music Hall at 7 a.m. At 10.30 they paraded the streets singing hymns and exhorting the people to seek repentance. After the parade, a meeting was held; singing and prayer, and the 'soldiers' giving testimony as to the improvement in their spiritual condition since joining the Army, being the order of the day. Crowded meetings were also held in the Music Hall in the afternoon and evening."
18 Sep 1883
9 Sep 1883
Opposition to the Salvation Army opening in Lambton. "There was a mob of about a dozen young ruffians, on a vacant piece of ground adjoining the premises of the Sergeant of Police, who were amusing themselves by insulting any old individual whom they thought they had got in their power, and banging stones for a long time against a neighbouring house."
3 Oct 1883Complaint that the Salvation Army is merely poaching members from other established churches … "We believe that it is also a fact that their 'converts' with few exceptions, have been previous church-goers."
22 Oct 1883
21 Oct 1883
Evening News, Sydney: "Disgraceful proceedings were witnessed last night in connection with the Salvation Army. The opposition army, known as the White Ribbons, or the Skeletons, extemporised a band, and joined the procession. In Hunter-street nearly 2,000 persons assembled, and a regular pandemonium ensued."
22 Oct 1883
21 Oct 1883
Newcastle Morning Herald: "For some time a counter 'army' to the 'Salvationists'—the 'Skeleton,' 'White Ribbon,' or otherwise, according as the phrase is adopted—have marched in opposition to the detachments of General Booth. Yesterday morning, again, a mass meeting was held at Cook's Hill, where over 2000 persons assembled … The climax was reached about 7 p.m., whilst the Salvation 'Armyists' were making their customary march down Hunter-street, near the police court, towards the Victoria Theatre. Their musicians(?), as usual, poured forth incessant brain-distracting, bedlam-filling, blasts of discord, which were supplemented at the intersection of Bolton and Hunter-streets by the bandsmen and the leather-lunged Skeletonian oppositionists. The effect out-heroded Herod by way of riot, obscenity, general breach of common decency, and Sabbath decorum. Nearly 2000 persons speedily assembled, and the march-past beggared description. Roars, horse-laughter, blasphemy, insulting of females, jostling, obscenity and a pandemonium of discord ensued down to Perkin-street corner."
2 Nov 1883"Mr. W. T. Dent, of Waratah, while driving into Newcastle one night last week, was met by the Skeleton Army. His horse, frightened by the hideous noises, rough music, and ragged banners, shied and bolted. With much difficulty the runaway was stopped. It is expected that some serious accident will result from these processions in the crowded streets in the evening."
14 Nov 1883
13 Nov 1883
"Lambton. The Salvation Army have added a big drum to their band of musical instruments. On Tuesday evening the army in their march were preceded by about thirty lads, singing, parodies on the hymn. This with the cornets, drum, and the army singing the hymns combined, just about made the air hideous."
19 Nov 1883
14 Nov 1883
"On Wednesday evening, an omnibus and the Salvation Army collided in Grainger-street. A little boy named Flarvin was knocked down by the 'bus horses, but beyond a good shaking and some bruises escaped serious injury. One thing is certain, Grainger-street, which is only thirty feet wide, including footpaths, is too narrow for public processions of any kind."
1 Dec 1883
30 Nov 1883
"Lambton. The White Ribbon corps have formed a branch here for the purpose of obstructing the Salvation Army. There was great excitement on Friday evening, and hundreds of people crowded the streets. The police promptly placed themselves between the two armies, and prevented anything in the shape of ruffianism occurring. Had it not been for this, breaches of the peace would no doubt have taken place."
11 Dec 1883"Lambton. I am pleased to see the Skeleton Army is becoming a thing of the past, thanks to some of our police force. I am sure the inhabitants of Lambton are under a debt of gratitude to our sergeant and his staff for the prompt manner in which they have virtually annihilated this White Ribbon nuisance."
31 Dec 1884
28 Jan 1884
In an end of year retrospective, it was noted that in January 1884 ... "Great rioting took place on Bullock Island [Carrington] between the Salvation Army and the White Ribbon Army, the latter being the aggressors. The White Ribbonites consisted of a gang of roughs who made it their business to obstruct and annoy the Salvation Army, ostensibly with the intention of putting them down as a nuisance... The leaders of the larrikins were tried for disturbing a congregation, and although they escaped punishment through a legal technicality, the White Ribbon Army gradually died out."
24 Mar 1884"The Salvation Army still continue to march round every evening, and draw large crowds of people to the Music Hall. The Army proper now numbers about one hundred rank and file. The erection of barracks is talked of."
25 Jun 1884"The Salvation Army treated us to a serenade at half-past six on Sunday morning, and with their bad music, and still worse, bad singing, disturbed the peace of all who like to take an extra nap on the Sabbath morn. This is really carrying the infliction too far."
18 Jul 1884Mr Melville (MLA) described "how the leaders of the 'Skeleton' Army in Newcastle had one by one been brought under the influences of the [Salvation] Army, and how one in particular of that Army confessed to having been paid by publicans in Newcastle to molest the [Salvation] Army."
26 Sep 1884
23 Sep 1884
"On Tuesday evening the Salvation Army and some of the opposing forces came into collision and had a passage at arms, which resulted in the free distribution of black eyes and kindred favours on either side. The case will be brought before the police court."
25 Oct 1884Advertisement in which Joseph Young and Joseph Halliday "acknowledge that WE DID WRONG by DISTURBING the Salvation Army on Sunday, the 19th, at Lambton." Presumably this public apology was in order to avoid prosecution over the incident.
26 Mar 1885The owners of the Music Hall in Lambton dismiss a runour that they have sold it to the Salvation Arrmy.
27 Sep 1886"TENDERS are invited for the ERECTION and COMPLETION of a Salvation Army BARRACKS, Lambton."
6 Sep 1894Tenth anniversary services of Lambton Salvation Army.

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