Catherine Booth, the daughter of a coachbuilder, was born in Ashbourne,
Derbyshire, in 1829. When she was a child the family moved to Boston,
Lincolnshire and later they lived in Brixton, London. Catherine was a devout
Christian and by the age of twelve she had read the Bible eight times. She had a
social conscience from an early age. On one occasion she protested to the local
policeman that he had been too rough on a drunken man he had arrested and
frog-marched to the local lock-up.
Catherine did not enjoy good health. At the age of fourteen she developed spinal
curvature and four years later, incipient tuberculosis. It was while she was ill
in bed that she began writing articles for magazines warning of the dangers of
drinking alcohol. Catherine was a member of the local Band of Hope and a
supporter of the national Temperance Society.
In 1852 Catherine met William Booth, a Methodist minister. William had strong
views on the role of church ministers believing they should be "loosing the
chains of injustice, freeing the captive and oppressed, sharing food and home,
clothing the naked, and carrying out family responsibilities." Catherine shared
William's commitment to social reform but disagreed with his views on women.
Catherine was an avowed feminist. On one occasion she objected to William
describing women as the "weaker sex". William was also opposed to the idea of
women preachers. When Catherine argued with William about this he added that
although he would not stop Catherine from preaching he would "not like it".
Despite their disagreements about the role of women in the church, the couple
married on 16th June 1855, at Stockwell New Chapel.
It was not until 1860 that Catherine Booth first started to preach. One day in
Gateshead Bethseda Chapel, a strange compulsion seized her and she felt she must
rise and speak. Later she recalled how an inner voice taunted her: "You will
look like a fool and have nothing to say". Catherine decided that this was the
Devil's voice: "That's just the point," she retorted, "I have never yet been
willing to be a fool for Christ. Now I will be one."
Catherine's sermon was so impressive that William changed his mind about women's
preachers. Catherine Booth soon developed a reputation as an outstanding speaker
but many Christians were outraged by the idea. As Catherine pointed out at that
time it was believed that a woman's place was in the home and "any respectable
woman who raised her voice in public risked grave censure."
In 1864 the couple began in London's East End the Christian Mission which later
developed into the Salvation Army. Catherine Booth took a leading role in these
revival services and could often be seen preaching in the dockland parishes of
Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. Though often imprisoned for preaching in the open
air, members of the Salvation Army fought on, waging war on poverty and
The Church of England were at first extremely hostile to the Salvation Army.
Lord Shaftesbury, a leading politician and evangelist, described William Booth
as the "anti-christ". One of the main complaints against Booth was his
"elevation of women to man's status". In the Salvation Army a woman officer
enjoyed equal rights with a man. Although Booth had initially rejected the idea
of women preachers, he had now completely changed his mind and wrote that "the
best men in my Army are the women."
Catherine Booth began to organize what became known as Food-for-the-Million
Shops where the poor could buy hot soup and a three-course dinner for sixpence.
On special occasions such as Christmas Day, she would cook over 300 dinners to
be distributed to the poor of London.
By 1882 a survey of London discovered that on one weeknight, there were almost
17,000 worshipping with the Salvation Army, compared to 11,000 in ordinary
churches. Even, Dr. William Thornton, the Archbishop of York, had to accept that
the Salvation Army was reaching people that the Church of England had failed to
have any impact on.
It was while working with the poor in London that Catherine found out about what
was known as "sweated labour". That is, women and children working long hours
for low wages in very poor conditions. In the tenements of London, Catherine
discovered red-eyed women hemming and stitching for eleven hours a day. These
women were only paid 9d. a day, whereas men doing the same work in a factory
were receiving over 3s. 6d. Catherine and fellow members of the Salvation Army
attempted to shame employers into paying better wages. They also attempted to
improve the working conditions of these women.
Catherine was particularly concerned about women making matches. Not only were
these women only earning 1s. 4d. for a sixteen hour day, they were also risking
their health when they dipped their match-heads in the yellow phosphorus
supplied by manufacturers such as Bryant & May. A large number of these women
suffered from 'Phossy Jaw' (necrosis of the bone) caused by the toxic fumes of
the yellow phosphorus. The whole side of the face turned green and then black,
discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death.
Women like Catherine Booth and Annie Beasant led a campaign against the use of
yellow phosphorus. They pointed out that most other European countries produced
matches tipped with harmless red phosphorus. Bryant & May responded that these
matches were more expensive and that people would be unwilling to pay these
Catherine Booth died of cancer in October 1890. The campaigns that were started
by Catherine were not abandoned. William Booth decided he would force companies
to abandon the use of yellow phosphorus. In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its
own match-factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using harmless red phosphorus,
the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. Whereas Bryant & May
paid their workers just over twopence a gross, the Salvation Army paid their
employees twice this amount.
William Booth organised conducted tours of MPs and journalists round this
'model' factory. He also took them to the homes of those "sweated workers" who
were working eleven and twelve hours a day producing matches for companies like
Bryant & May. The bad publicity that the company received forced the company to
reconsider its actions. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of
Bryant & May, announced it had stopped used yellow phosphorus.
Catherine Booth and William Booth had eight children, all of whom were active in
the Salvation Army. William Bramwell Booth (1856-1929) was chief of staff from
1880 and succeeded his father as general in 1912. Catherine's second son,
Ballington Booth (1857-1940), was commander of the army in Australia (1883-1885)
and the USA (1887-1896). One of her daughters, Evangeline Cora Booth (1865-1950)
was elected General of the Salvation Army in 1934.
(1) In the 1880s Charlotte Despard wrote an unpublished novel on the life of a
factory girl called A Voice From the Dim Millions. The novel deals with the
subject of working class poverty.
They call our deaths by many names - it is said to be consumption or
heart-complaint or low-fever that is responsible… and people make it their boast
that no one need die of starvation in England. But I should like to ask the
doctors what is the cause of the consumption, the low-fever? In nine cases out
of ten it is want - want that presses upon us day after day, year after year….
Two meals a day - sometimes only one - dry bread and tea, tea and dry bread… a
straw mattress and bare boards at night with a thin sheet for covering. Stitch,
stitch, for thirteen, fourteen, sixteen hours out of twenty-four. Headache,
heartache, sickness, rheumatism, but no rest, for a day without earnings means
the rent unpaid and the children crying for food. Is it a wonder that it kills?
(2) In December 1894, Charlotte Despard was election as a Poor Law Guardian for
Vauxhall. Charlotte Despard objected to the way that Samuel Ayles, Master of the
Renfrew Road Workhouse, punished elderly inmates by putting them on a bread and
water diet. She wrote a letter explaining why Samuel Ayles should be removed
Mr. Ayles permits the bread and water diet to be inflicted on persons (aged and
weak women, the last about whom I enquired is 74) who are wholly unfit to bear
it, and in fact would not bear it did not others supply them with part of their
own food. I cannot, moreover, feel comfortable in leaving this matter in the
hands of the Master, Mr. Ayles, a man not at all gifted as an administrator, and
to my mind too young for the important and onerous post.
(3) Cicely Corbett Fisher, a representative of the Women's Industrial Council,
gave a talk on sweated labour at East Grinstead in May 1912.
Sweated labour may be defined as (1) working long hours, (2) for low wages, (3)
under insanitary conditions. Although its victims include men as well as women,
women form the great majority of sweated workers. The chief difficulty is
combating this evil abuse is that nearly all sweated work is done in the homes
of the workers. During the recent strike of Jam makers in Bermondsey the wages
of the girls only just sufficed to provide them with food, and left no margin
whatsoever for the purchase of clothes, for which they were entirely dependent
on gifts from friends… Chief among these evils of sweated labour is the
exploitation of child labour. Children of six years and upwards were employed
after school hours, in helping to add to the family output and even infants of
3, 4 and 5 years of age work anything from 3 to 6 hours a day in such labour as
carding hooks and eyes to add a few pence per week to the wages of the
(4) George Lansbury, Looking Backwards and Forwards (1935)
I have heard some remarkable women orators. Some of them stand head and
shoulders above all others. There was Catherine Booth, mother of the Salvation
Army, who was one of the simplest exponents of the gospel of love I have ever
heard. I think her speeches, sermons and appeals on behalf of the weak and the
fallen were among the finest pieces of simple arresting oratory I have ever
Her theology was rather hard and narrow, and very dogmatic. Later on she threw
her energy into work on behalf of young girls and illegitimate babies. Her whole
soul and spirit was poured out in an unceasing effort to make men realize their
responsibility. In politics, she demanded legislation to raise the age of
consent and provision for the maintenance of these unfortunate victims of our
lack of individual and social responsibility.
Further articles By Catherine Booth:
How To Receive
The Greatest Gift
Expect To Receive
The Holy Spirit