All aboard The Salvation ‘Navy’ at Cardiff docks

published on 4 Jul 2024

Research by The Salvation Army to mark 150 years of the church and charity in Wales during 2024 has revealed that briefly in the late 1800s there was also a Salvation Navy – and all thanks to a famous Cardiff shipping family.

Iole crew with Captain Sherington Foster
The crew of The SS Iole
It is fascinating to imagine the outcome today had early proposals for a Salvation Navy worked out as planned.
Steven Spencer

While the familiar red shield and mission work of The Salvation Army is known around the world in more than 130 countries, the existence in the Victorian era of a Salvation Navy might have been lost to history had a fragile letter from 1885 not surfaced during preparations for celebrating the 150th anniversary in Wales. The handwritten letter, addressed to founder William Booth from his son, Bramwell, details a gift from the celebrated Welsh industrialist John Cory of Cory Brothers and Co. namely, ‘A three masted steam yacht, 100ft long, to The Salvation Army’.

Steven Spencer, Director of The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre in London, has assembled additional evidence that reveals an almost unknown seafaring history and clues to what ‘might have been’ 150 years ago as the church expanded its mission in Victorian Wales. 

Steven Spencer said: 

“It is fascinating to imagine the outcome today had early proposals for a Salvation Navy worked out as planned. The story of The Salvation Army in Wales began on 15th November 1874, at the Gospel Hall on Bute Street, near the docks. Within fifteen years 120 churches, or corps, had been established across the country. Initial progress towards establishing a seafaring service came amid this rapid expansion of the mission in the late 1800s across Wales.

“John Cory and his brother Richard were committed Christians becoming friends and benefactors to our founders, William and Catherine Booth, who admired a well-appointed yacht named SS Iole originally purchased by John as a pleasure cruiser for his wife. It seems he gifted the ship to The Salvation Army on hearing about Bramwell Booth’s vision for a seaborne mission – and after discovering that his wife did not have sea legs. The Cory family were wealthy and John was surprisingly sanguine about giving away the expensive, unwanted gift. He wrote in the letter to Bramwell Booth, ‘Evidently, God has been ordering things’.” 

SS Iolé

The SS Iole was launched as the flagship of the newly formed Salvation Navy in August 1885 and captained by an officer of The Salvation Army, Staff Captain Sherrington Foster. He wrote in the ship’s log as they set sail, detailing their mission, ‘To visit every fishing town and seaport village along the Welsh, Irish, Scotch and English coast, boarding every vessel when lying in any stead, giving bibles and good books, preaching Christ.’

The Iole, which featured the original ‘S’ logo on its sails pre-dating today’s iconic red shield, spent the winter of 1885/6 visiting ports in the English channel. Records reveal attempts were made to acquire a second ship but the deal appears to have fallen through and there was only ever one official craft in The Salvation Navy at any one time. As an alternative approach, Naval Brigades were established, comprising privately owned ships crewed by Salvationists, and encouraged to fly The Salvation Navy colours. On one occasion William Booth personally launched one of these Naval Brigades where a dozen boats of all shapes and sizes were seen to fly the colours. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, within a year the project experienced a major setback.

Steven Spencer added: 

“The whole enterprise was hit by disaster in the treacherous currents of the River Humber on 11 June 1886. The weather in early June that year is recorded as cyclonic, showery with ‘thunderstorms of considerable severity’ over the North Sea. The flagship struck a sandbank just off the coast near Hull and immediately began taking in water. It quickly became clear the damage was significant, possibly caused by debris from a previous shipwreck. While the crew survived, the SS Iole sank along with the crew’s possessions and all contents, including a piano used for accompanying hymns.”

Following the sinking, it was seven months before Cory again came to the rescue presenting an 82ft racing yacht, The Vestal(5) for a similar purpose under Captain Abbot Taylor and crew. Unfortunately, a further collision signalled the end of the project. The Salvation Navy disappears from record after 1890 as Booth concentrated on a rapidly growing mission on land.

The Salvation Army is marking 150 years of mission in Wales this year with 150 days of prayer on X / Twitter, posting one story @TSA_Wales every day until an event at The Senedd to mark the anniversary in November 2024. There will also be a presence at festivals such as the Royal Welsh Show and the National Eisteddfod. More information on the story of the Salvation Navy can be found at: The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre.

An employment plus worker with long blonde hair sits next to a young woman who is looking intently at the laptop screen as the Salvation Army worker gives her instructions. The young woman has long dark hair and is wearing a smart navy dress.

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