Conversion Narratives of Salvation Army Brass Bands, c.1840-1914

The Salvation Army Bands: Music and Morality

Many Victorians viewed music as the ideal ‘rational recreation’. The performance and appreciation of music could improve the soul, educate the mind and create moral order. Yet, music was still a leisure pursuit and this led to social networks that could still behave badly. The Salvation Army, therefore, found brass bands to be the ideal vehicle to engage with the popular culture of the day.

In order to understand the role of Salvation Army bands then it is important to consider the nature of Salvationism and the influence of the Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, and his wife Catherine Booth. Booth had been a Methodist preacher but turned to a more evangelical ministry that was founded upon a strong belief in the need for people to receive spiritual salvation through the enactment of the message of Christ’s gospel. Furthermore, Booth believed that this message could be realised through a religious agency which sought to promote social reform and combat vice. The urgent need for his mission was abundantly clear to Booth from the condition of the urban poor.[1]

The Salvation Army was originally founded in 1865 at the East London Christian Mission and within ten years had established thirty-two mission stations.[2] It expanded rapidly between 1878 and 1883. From 1878 they opened new corps in the north of England, the majority in Tyneside, South Yorkshire and central Lancashire. In addition new corps were established in the coal-mining communities of South Wales.[3] By December 1883 the Army had 519 corps in England and Wales, thirty-seven in Scotland and seventeen in Ireland.[4]

Brass bands were introduced into the Army by Charles Fry, a builder from Salisbury. He led the local Wesleyan Methodist choir and was a cornet player with the 1st Wiltshire Rifle Volunteer Band.[5] There are contradictory sources over the first use of a band, but it seems the Fry band – consisting of Charles Fry on the cornet, and his three sons, Fred, Earnest and Bert, playing another cornet, a valve trombone and a euphonium – played at an open air meeting in Salisbury in March 1878.[6] The purpose of the band, it seems, was to deflect the attention of hooligans away from other Salvationists rather than musical reasons.[7] Booth appreciated the value and practicality of brass instruments whilst on tour in the north-east. He noted in his diary:

The last Sabbath we had a little novelty, which apparently worked well. Among the converts are two members of brass band-one plays a cornet, and to utilise him at once Brother Russell put him with his cornet in the front rank of the procession from South Stockton. He certainly improved the singing and brought crowds all along the line of march, wondering curiously what we should do next.[8]

In 1880, Booth issued his first ‘Orders for Bands’ in the War Cry, which placed further emphasis on brass instruments in ‘the great utility in attracting crowds to our open air meetings and indoor meetings.’ He earnestly asked ‘for the formation of bands throughout the country.’ It has been argued that the first band was established at the Consett corps in 1879.[9] It was noted, however, that another band was formed in Manchester in 1879. It has been suggested that this was not mentioned in the War Cry, perhaps for diplomatic reasons, as it was established by General Booth’s second son, Ballington Booth.[10] By 1883 there were 400 bands in Britain. Among these were bands in South Shields, Carlisle, Stockton-on-Tees and Sheffield. Ebbw Vale and Merthyr were two of the first in Wales and Hamilton, in Scotland, and Belfast, in Ireland, soon followed.[11]

Bands were incorporated into the Salvation Army for a number of reasons that were synchronous with the growth of secular bands throughout the country. As Herbert has discussed, ‘brass instruments are robust, durable, and easy to play, and are suited for indoor and outdoor use. By the 1870s, they were cheap, and a large stock of them was on the second-hand market.’[12] From 1878, a large number corps became established in the industrial north and Wales where secular bands were already established.[13] Herbert argues that many early Salvationists had most likely been members of brass or volunteer bands, even though, in 1900, the Salvation Army was claiming bandsmen had acquired their musical skills since conversion.[14] It is reasonable to say that as corps were establishing themselves in areas where brass bands were popular they would draw on that established membership to form their own bands.

Booth had worked as a Methodist Minister in Brighouse, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, one of the established centres of the brass band movement, and it was likely he was aware of the growth of the brass band movement. On one hand Booth appreciated their functional qualities, but, on the other, he also saw the brass bands as a danger.[15] Booth was alert to what he perceived to be the seductive power of music and its ability to promote passions, the temptation to indulge in unproductive virtuosity and the ever-present danger that Salvation Army bands would assume an independent identity within the Army.[16] By the 1870s secular bands were moving towards standardised instrumentation because of the influence of contests. Salvation Army bands did not compete and had no need of standardised instrumentation until the twentieth century.[17] As Herbert has noted, ‘in the later nineteenth-century, virtuosity and the type of homogeneity which preoccupied non-Salvation Army brass bands were of little concern to their Salvation Army counterparts.’[18]

Salvationists adapted various musical styles and tunes to their own purposes. Booth favoured the brass band because of its potency as a current form of popular music. It was one of the ways he harnessed popular culture to his cause.[19] He was quick to appreciate the value of good, rousing songs at his meetings. [20] In 1876 he published Revival Music, a collection of well-loved hymns and choruses for use at the Christian Mission and three years later this was reissued as the first Salvation Army Songbook.[21] Nevertheless, Booth was dissatisfied with such tunes as they were too solemn for his ear. As early as 1867 he surprised a fellow Salvationist by singing ‘Oh, How I love Jesus’ to a minstrel tune.[22] The Army took dozens of music-hall songs and wrote new lyrics for them.[23] These tunes were well known and easy to sing. Pamela Walker has argued that the adaptation of these songs helped the Army criticise the behaviour found within the music halls.[24] Music-hall songs were often rewritten to commemorate a local event or special occasion, and, as a result, these adaptations made the Army’s music memorable and associated it with what was current and popular. In addition the Army’s perspective on these songs countered what was popular and admired by music-hall patrons.[25] In 1884 a correspondent wrote in the Tonic Sol-Fa Reporter that:

Music in the Eye of the Salvation Army, is primarily a bait to catch the common throng and bring them to the Army services [….] The advantages of using these popular melodies are obvious. First, they are ear-catching tunes – their popularity proves that. Then the people know them already; they have been whistling them in the streets, hearing them sung at the music-halls or churned out of barrel-organs. What the Army wants is that the common folk who crowd their barracks and halls shall listen and sing, and the battle is half won.[26]

From the late nineteenth century the Army’s repertoire expanded with the influences of institutionalisation and Salvationist composers.[27] These early adaptations of popular music, however, engaged the Army with the popular culture of the day.

The main concerns of the of the Salvation Army brass players were to serve the functional purposes of Army events, and to protect themselves, and their instruments, against the violence to which almost all Salvationists were at times subjected.[28] The Salvation Army provoked physical opposition from ‘Skeleton Armies’ who tried to drive them out of towns.[29] These ‘Skeleton Armies’ were known in the north but were more strictly a phenomenon of the Southern and Home Counties.[30] It has been suggested that the extremes of intimidation visited upon the Salvation Army by the ‘Skeleton Armies’, whose members were principally young labourers, shop assistants or semi-skilled workers, was because the secular brass band tradition was at its weakest in these parts of the country.[31] The Salvationists saw the challenge of the ‘Skeleton Armies’ as being to save them. ‘It was very hard’, said Mrs Booth, ‘when members of the Army were facing these dangerous classes. They had no other motive but to save them.’[32]

Yet, as Pamela Walker has argued, conversion narratives of the Salvation Army, that included the use of brass bands, ‘demonstrated a complicated relationship to urbanised working-class culture, organised politics, both bourgeois and proletarian, and the wider community of evangelicals.’[33] The Army’s analysis of the causes and consequences of working-class struggle would not have corresponded with the views of labour activists, publicans or even organised hooligans, but neither was it at odds with such working-class voices. The Salvation Army, including its bands, was, as Walker wrote, ‘as authentic, complicated and mediated an expression of working-class belief and desire as any other movement of working-class people.’[34] In part a rational recreation, music gave the Salvation Army brass players a way to express their form of musicianship within the wider working-class world. The Salvation Army mirrored how secular brass bands engaged with music to create their own traditions and identity but for different and distinct purposes.


[1] Trevor Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels: The Bands of the Salvation Army’, in Herbert (Ed.) The British Brass Band, p. 189.

[2] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.189.

[3] Glen K. Horridge, The Salvation Army: Origins and Early Days, 1865-1900 (Godalming, 1993), p. 38. It is worth noting that musical instruments were used in the Army from the earliest days to accompany singing. See Ian Bradley, ‘Blowing for the Lord: the Salvation Army’, History Today Vol 27. No 3. (1 March, 1977), p. 191.

[4] Glenn K. Horridge, The Salvation Army, p. 38.

[5] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 190.

[6] See Roy Newsome, Brass Roots: A Hundred Years of Brass Bands and Their Music, 1836-1936 (Aldershot, 1998), p. 112 and Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 190.

[7] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 190.

[8] ‘William Booth’s Journal’, Christian Mission Magazine (October, 1877), pp. 264-265, cited in, Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 190.

[9] Horridge, The Salvation Army, p. 46.

[10] Horridge, The Salvation Army, pp. 46-48.

[11] Brindley Boon, Play the Music, Play! The Story of Salvation Army Bands (St Albans, 1966), p. 15. (A 1916 audit showed there to be 24,477 senior bandsmen and 4,270 junior bandsmen. Source: Salvation Army Yearbook, 1918, p. 26. Cited in Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 191.

[12] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 191.

[13] Horridge, The Salvation Army, p. 38.

[14] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, pp. 191-192.

[15] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p. 193.

[16] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.193.

[17] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.199.

[18] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.199.

[19] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.193.

[20] Bradley, ‘Blowing for the Lord’, p. 191.

[21] Bradley, ‘Blowing for the Lord’, p. 191.

[22] Bradley, ‘Blowing for the Lord’, p. 191.

[23] Pamela J. Walker, Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain (Berkeley, 2001), p.192.

[24] Walker, Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down, p. 192.

[25] Walker, Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down, p. 192.

[26] Anon, ‘The Music of the Salvation Army’, Tonic Sol-Fa Reporter (1 August, 1884), p. 324.

[27] See Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, pp. 203-213.

[28] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.199.

[29] Victor Bailey ‘Salvation Army Riots, The “Skeleton Army” and Legal Authority in the Provincial Town’, in, A.P. Donajgrodzki, Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London, 1977), p. 233.

[30] Bailey ‘Salvation Army Riots’, p. 233. See also, p. 255.

[31] Herbert, ‘God’s Perfect Minstrels’, p.199.

[32] Daily Telegraph (23 April, 1883), cited in, Bailey ‘Salvation Army Riots’, p. 233.

[33] Walker, Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down, p. 67.

[34] Walker, Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down, p. 67.


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