Catherine Booth was born in Derbyshire in 1829. When she was a young girl the family moved to the East End of London. She was a committed Christian and by the age of twelve she had read the Bible eight times! She was particularly concerned for the weak and the powerless and on one occasion she became incensed with a policeman who had arrested and abused a drunken member of the ‘lower orders’.

In 1852 Catherine met William Booth, the future founder of the Salvation Army. William believed passionately that Christians should be busy “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 justice but disagreed with his views on women. On one occasion she chided William when he declared that women were the “weaker sex”. Catherine was having none of it.

Despite their disagreements about the role of women in the church, the couple married on 16th June 1855. It was not until 1860 that Catherine first started to preach. One day in church, 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. The ’father of lies’ Mr. B.L. Zebub was up to his usual tricks; a Molotov cocktail of lies, accusations and ridicule.

Catherine’s sermon was a cracker and William soon changed his mind about women preachers. Catherine was now developing a reputation as an outstanding speaker but many Christians were outraged by her preaching. Many contended that a woman’s place was in the home fully absorbed in the domestic activities of cooking, cleaning and giving suck to immature, helpless progeny.

In 1864 the couple set up the Christian Mission which later became known as the Salvation Army. Catherine Booth took a leading role in these revival services and could often be seen preaching in the dockland parishes of the East End. Many cockney people responded positively to her winsome and winning way with words.

The Church of England was at first extremely hostile to the Salvation Army. Lord Shaftesbury, a leading Christian politician and factory reformer, described William Booth as the “Anti-Christ”. One of the main complaints against William Booth was his “elevation of women to man’s status”. In the Salvation Army a woman officer enjoyed equal rights with a man. Although William 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 established 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, Catherine Booth would cook over 300 dinners to be distributed to some of the poorest people living in London.  

It was while working with the poor and needy that Catherine found out about what was known as “sweated labour”. Picture it for a moment. Women and children working painfully long hours for miserable wages in horrible conditions. The Bible calls a spade a spade; this is a clear manifestation of the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13).

In the tenements of London, Catherine discovered exhausted, red-eyed women sewing and stitching for eleven hours a day. These women were only being paid 9d. a day, whereas men doing the same work in a factory were receiving over 3s. 6d. Catherine and William attempted to shame employers into paying better wages. They also struggled to improve the working conditions of these exploited female workers.

Catherine Booth was particularly concerned about the women who were employed by match factories. A match can be described as a tool for producing fire under controlled circumstances. Matches are readily available, being sold in tobacconists, newsagents and supermarkets. A match is typically a wooden stick or stiff paper stick coated at one end (the match end) with a material often containing the element phosphorus, that will ignite from the heat of friction if rubbed against a suitable surface. Matches are often purchased by people who enjoy lighting bonfires, cigars and pipes but do we ever ponder the sin and depravity that can accompany their manufacture?

The match girls were only earning 1s. 4d. for a sixteen hour day. They were also risking their health when they dipped the 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 then the match girls died.

Women like Catherine Booth and Annie Besant 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 consumers would be unwilling to pay these higher prices. In other words profits were more important than ‘disposable’ working class women.

Catherine, along with other evangelicals like Josephine Butler and William Stead, was also appalled by the “white slave trade”, a Victorian euphemism for child prostitution. Wicked people would kidnap and force destitute girls into a life of prostitution that was nearly impossible to escape. Catherine and her husband exposed the white slave trade in England. Three hundred and ninety-six thousand signatures later, they saw the practice outlawed. The Booths believed that this kind of political activity was an essential part of their Christian witness.

Catherine died of cancer in October 1890. The campaigns that were started by Catherine were not abandoned. William Booth was determined to 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 encouraged MPs and journalists to visit 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 Bryant & May received forced the company to reconsider its actions. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced that the firm had stopped using yellow phosphorus.

Just like the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, Catherine Booth refused to privatise and individualise the Christian faith. She understood her calling as an evangelist and a preacher but she also understood the New Testament proclamation that all areas of life and culture belong to Jesus Christ, the King of kings (Rev 19:16). A match factory can be so easily corrupted by sin and idolatry but a match factory can also be transformed by the merciful rule of Jesus.

Mark Roques
Categories: RealityBites

Mark Roques

Mark taught Philosophy and Religious Education at Prior Park College, Bath, for many years. As Director of RealityBites he has developed a rich range of resources for youth workers and teachers. He has spoken at conferences in the UK, Holland, South Korea, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Mark is a lively storyteller and the author of four books, including The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith. His work is focused on storytelling and how this can help us to communicate the Christian faith. He has written many articles for the Baptist Times, RE Today, Youthscape, Direction magazine and the Christian Teachers Journal.

1 Comment

Duncan Stow · July 5, 2024 at 8:15 am

Thanks Rocky – love hearing and being inspired by the heroes of the faith. Loved hearing how William and Catherine were able to hold different beliefs on women in leadership, still get married and work that through together. Value the willingness to hold and discuss difference without falling out

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