CovSoc member Peter James tells the little-known story of Coventry’s links with the early Salvation Army movement.
William Booth was born in Nottingham on 10th April 1829. He became a Methodist preacher and later founded the Christian Mission in 1865. The venue used was outside the front of the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel in London’s east end. This is where Ronnie Kray murdered George Cornell and it was at one time owned by Bobby Moore the famous footballer.
The Christian Mission was renamed and rebranded the Salvation Army in 1878. The inaugural meeting was on 17th February at the Theatre Royal in Coventry. William Booth led a procession into the town centre witnessed by up to 5000 people. Booth then sent Captain Catherine Reynolds and Honour Burrell to Coventry to manage the corps there.
Amos Shirley was born in Foleshill in 1839 and was brought up in Lockhurst Lane and later in Paradise Row. He became a silk weaver and married a local girl Annie Allen. Their only child Eliza was born there on 9th October 1862.
After attending a few meetings of the Salvation Army, Eliza was converted. By this time her father Amos had become a part time minister, Eliza used to read his sermons and try to memorise them. At an outdoor meeting in September 1878 she stood on a chair and spoke of her conversion. William Booth was there and heard her and was amazed to discover she was only 15. Aged 16 she joined the corps and was posted to Bishop Auckland where she met Captain Annie Allsop. The petite young women soon made an impact converting even the worst men.
Eliza’s father Amos left England for Philadelphia where he found employment as a foreman in a silk mill. He wrote to her describing America as a fine country but with some wicked inhabitants. Would she consider joining him and starting an organisation similar to the Salvation Army? When she spoke to General William Booth he was extremely reluctant explaining that there was enough work saving souls in England. Eventually he relented and Eliza along with her mother Annie sailed to Philadelphia.
Annie decided to help Eliza who quickly found a meeting venue in Oxford Street Philadelphia. The site was a former furniture factory with many broken windows and a leaky roof. Their first meeting only attracted 12 people and over the next few weeks they suffered much verbal and physical abuse. After about a month they got lucky, some young boys set fire to tar barrels near their lot. It attracted the fire brigade and a large crowd. The Shirleys began to sing and preach and made their first convert, a drunk called Reddy.
Eventually their meetings were attended by hundreds of people so William Booth sent George Railton Scott with a number of Hallelujah Lasses to the U.S.. Scott became the first Salvation Army commissioner there.
So in summary, in 1878 the Salvation Army was founded in Coventry. Then in 1879 Eliza Shirley a seventeen year old from Coventry established the first corps of the Salvation Army in the U.S.A.