Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Skeleton Army

The Skeleton Army was a diffuse group, particularly in Southern England, that opposed and disrupted the Salvation Army's marches against alcohol in the late 19th century. Clashes between the two groups led to the deaths of several Salvationists and injuries to many others.

According to George Scott Railton, the original Skeleton Army was organised at Weston-super-Mare, towards the end of 1881. The Christmas War Cry of that year states that 'the chief officers of the Skeleton Army raised to oppose us at Exeter were converted'. It was after that edition that the term Skeleton Army came into continual use.

A genuine rabble of "roughs" pure and unadulterated has been infesting the district for several weeks past. These vagabonds style themselves the 'Skeleton Army'.... The 'skeletons' have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands... it contained a number shopkeepers' names... I found that publicans, beersellers and butchers are subscribing to this imposture... the collector told me that the object of the skeleton army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible... Amongst the skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consumate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce...worthy of the disreputable class of publicans who hate the London school board, education and temperance, and who, seeing the beginning of the end of their immoral trafic, and prepared for the most desparate enterprise. 

The skeleton armies carried flags usually bearing a skull and crossbones, no doubt inspired by the prominence given to piracy in contemporary "penny dreadfuls" for boys. Variations included the addition of two coffins and the motto "blood and thunder ! Others decorated theirs with monkeys, a devil, and rats. Another had a yellow banner with three B's-" beef beer and 'bacca !

Some of these " armies " produced "gazettes" - ribald, obscene, blasphemous and slanderous! Ammunition was flour, red and yellow ochre, rotten eggs, stones, brickbats and any other unpleasant and often at times injurious missiles that might be found at hand. Sticks were often used viciously on men and women, young and old alike. {via}