International Heritage Centre blog

Tales from the Theatre

Tales from the Theatre

In August 2020, the widespread effects of COVID-19 upon Britain’s economy are already substantial. In particular, the arts and heritage sectors, hugely dependent on custom, memberships and donations, have proved to be two of the most critically affected sectors. Continued loss of the patronage that facilitates their success throws the survival of our historic, cultural institutions into the spotlight. While reflecting upon this, my thoughts came to The Salvation Army’s origins and the east end theatres and music halls that provided the backdrop for its early expansion; without which, the shape of The Salvation Army’s early history could be rather different.

The initial establishment of The Salvation Army is a well-known narrative. After accepting an invitation to preach for an east London mission in 1865, William Booth took charge of the assembly at the disused Quaker burial ground in Whitechapel, forming it firstly into the Christian Mission, and then The Salvation Army. As the volume of attendees grew, so did the need for larger spaces to accommodate them. Whilst Booth advocated the benefits of open-air meetings, he also sought indoor spaces to establish a permanent presence. With rapidly rising numbers and few funds, the Christian Mission began renting indoor spaces to hold meetings. 

William Booth preaching in the Effingham Theatre
Sketch of William Booth preaching in the Effingham Theatre, late nineteenth century

Considering William and Catherine Booth’s principles of piety and sobriety, a Victorian music hall or theatre is not the place one would expect to find them. At first it seems unbelievable that they would have chosen these spaces for their mission but upon closer inspection, as is often said, there was method to what may seem to be an act of madness.

As mentioned, the first considerations in selecting an indoor space to preach were, firstly, somewhere large enough to accommodate the attendees, and secondly, somewhere that they could afford.

Christian Mission Report on Theatres and Music Halls, 1867
Christian Mission report on Theatres and Music Halls, 1867

With capacities in the thousands, music halls and theatres were unique in their size, accessibility and affordability.

Moreover, and extremely importantly for the Booths, theatres and music halls were well-recognized places. From the beginning, William Booth was unlike other religious leaders in striving to reach the poorest and least ‘respectable’ members of society. His dream was to save people, economically and spiritually:

Go straight for souls and go for the worst
William Booth

Attending performances at theatres and music halls was an integral part of Victorian working-class entertainment culture. Setting themselves up in the same locations that drew the working classes for leisure activities allowed The Salvation Army to successfully integrate into the sphere of the people they strove to save. Moreover, in taking over theatre spaces, The Salvation Army was able, to a certain extent, replace local cultures of immorality and drink that they condemned, with those of community, acceptance and faith.

The opening of the Grecian Theatre in 1882 was described by a Salvation Army officer as a transformation of ‘one of the vilest haunts of vice into being a gate of heaven for the common people’.

To bolster this integration to the local community, The Salvation Army also commissioned posters that mimicked the style of theatre posters. In the same style, such posters would attract the eye of passersby, already accustomed to checking upcoming events at their local establishment.

Posters from the Grecian Theatre and from The Salvation Army
Poster advertising events at the Grecian Theatre, 1865 and a Salvation Army poster advertising an open-air demonstration by the Christian Mission, 1877

The Effingham/East London Theatre, City of London Theatre, Oriental Music HallPrince of Wales Theatre, Pavilion Theatre, Grecian Theatre, and the Assembly Rooms were a few of the locations that the Booths selected for their mission in London; in addition to a few outside the capital such as the Empire Theatre in Liverpool and the Princes Theatre in Clacton-on-Sea.

Pavilion Theatre
Pavilion Theatre, twentieth century

Over the next few years, these theatres became the backdrop for the salvation of the masses, who were brought to the mercy seat and converted to the faith. Such successes were well documented at the time in the East London Evangelist, to share knowledge and experiences among Salvationists, as well as to inspire and encourage the as yet unconverted.

In December 1868 the East London Evangelist published the tale of 

‘A Converted Thief’

A ‘brother’ who, upon passing the East London Theatre on his way to a meeting on Mile End Road, was drawn in by a desire for rest. Upon listening to the congregation sing, he was converted from a life of sin to an ‘instrument in the hand of the Lord’.

'A Converted Thief' image one
'A Converted Thief' image two
Extract from 'A Converted Thief', East London Evangelist, December 1868, p42

Extract from ‘A Converted Thief’, East London Evangelist, December 1868, p42

‘This is how that was brought about. I had been to hear the old Scotchman speak on Mormonism, in the Mile-end Road, one morning, and started out to go and hear him again at night; but passing the East London Theatre, and feeling tired, I thought I would drop in to pass an hour away. Mr. Booth preached about where Paul was brought before Agrippa, and Agrippa was almost persuaded to be a Christian. But it was more the singing than anything else which affected and broke me down. I think somebody must have lent me a hymn book; for I did not know any. They sang. “There is sweet rest in heaven;” and when they came to the second verse—

‘Loved ones have gone before us,

They beckon us away,”

I was fairly broken down, and was in such misery on account of my sins, that I was crying the whole of the evening. After the service I was spoken to, and in the pit of the East London Theatre I went down on my knees, and sought and obtained forgiveness, and have never regretted it. It was rather uphill work at first, especially at my shop, where I thought I should not be able to tell my mates: so I bought a hymn book, and laid it on my bench, that they might ask me about it, which they soon did: and the Lord gave me strength and words to answer them; since when I have been the instrument in the hand of the Lord in bringing two poor souls to Christ, my ever blessed Saviour; and I hope I shall be the means of bringing many more; and may the Lord keep me steadfast to the end, for his name and mercy’s sake! And may I meet you in heaven, for Christ’s sake, Amen.’

In January 1869 another tale appeared, documenting the transgressions and conversion of 

‘A Terrible Blasphemer, Drunkard, and Infidel’

Similarly, this individual, struggling with alcoholism, was firstly attracted by an open-air meeting and subsequently stumbled into the Oriental Theatre where he found salvation and acceptance. 

'A Terrible Blasphemer'
‘A Terrible Blasphemer, Drunkard, and Infidel’, East London Evangelist, January 1869, p59

Extract from ‘A Terrible Blasphemer, Drunkard, and Infidel’, East London Evangelist, January 1869, p59

‘The following are two of the facts referred to by the brother stationed here, in his letter in our November number, but for which we had no space.

S.H. is above sixty years of age, is an iron ship-builder, and for many years he earned above £5 per week, and spent it in drunkenness and debauchery. He has been several times to Arbour Square police-station, and had to pay five shillings and costs for being drunk and incapable. He was a terror to all the men who worked under him; he attended our open-air service, and God sent the Word home to his soul with power. He afterwards came to the Oriental Theatre, and again the Word went as an arrow to his heart. He was so deeply convicted of sin that he could neither sleep nor eat. He came to the Temperance Hall one Monday evening, and gave himself up to God, but he did not get peace that night. He was out of work at the time, and had to apply at the workhouse for relief. On the following Thursday, while waiting to go in before the Board, his distress reached such a climax that he felt as if he were going to die, and sink into hell there and then. He began praying for mercy just where he stood, and the Lord at once shone in upon his soul; he perceived that Jesus was willing to receive him; he believed, and was filled with joy and peace. When he went in before the Board he told them that God, for Christ’s sake, had pardoned his sins, and that whether they gave him anything or no, the God who had saved his soul would supply the need of his body. He went home and told his wife what the Lord had done for him, and she thought he had gone out of his mind. And she has since proved that he had gone out of his own mind into the mind of Jesus. I visited them regularly; the wife was soon brought to see herself a sinner. She came to the Oriental Theatre, and gave her heart to God, and now they are walking in the way to heaven together.’

Both articles illustrate the compassion, dedication and integrity of Booth’s evangelical mission. He witnessed some of the debilitating effects of poverty in east London and made it his life’s work to address them. References to the uplifting strength of Christian Mission music and the accessible location of the East London Theatre in Mile End (an area of ‘chronic want’ as depicted on Charles Booth’s poverty map) explicitly demonstrates the success of William Booth’s pioneering and practical methods; most of which are still employed in The Salvation Army today. 

As well as playing an instrumental role in changing the lives of many early converts, London’s theatres had a permanent impact on the methods of Salvationist ministry by providing a blueprint for the construction of Salvation Army buildings for years to come. Thus, despite William and Catherine Booth’s detestation of the vices and corruption that flourished in the music halls and theatres of Victorian London, it was these very same spaces that enabled them to establish a permanent presence in the east end of London and cater for the thousands of souls who responded to their call.


August 2020


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