Poverty is hell. Indifference to it is a crime against humanity. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, understood this. Born in Nottingham in 1829, Booth knew as well the Dickensian squalor of Britain's inner cities.
Triggered by the rapid growth of industrialisation, tens of thousands flocked to the factories, the mines and the tenements, overloading the already centuries old support systems that were hardly existent in any event. The rigid class system served only to condemn the poor even more irrevocably to their station where they lived in humiliation and degradation.
William Booth became a Christian in his youth and spent what little time he had from his job at a pawn shop helping the poor, the sick, the hopeless. He encouraged the destitute to look to God for solace in the churches. He was indeed convincing. The poor, however, soon rediscovered what they have always known: there was no real place for them amongst the sweet-smelling, elegantly dressed Sunday church goers. William founded the East London Christian Mission. It worked, but hardly. William, his son Bromwell and their friend George Railton, dedicated to their cause, were eventually inspired by the concept of "The Christian Mission is a Volunteer Army".
At the time, Victorian England, Imperial England, was defined by its armies that had carved out for her a huge and far-flung empire. This army was largely comprised of volunteers. This inspired William Booth and his small circle of helpers. It also drew some mockery - being called a "Volunteer Army" to help the poor! In a moment of inspiration, Booth crossed out the word "Volunteer" and wrote "Salvation" instead. Thus, the Salvation Army was born.
The rapid development of the first Salvationists was in truth aided by the adoption of a quasi-military structure. An army in the service of God, dedicated to help those in need, had declared war against poverty and hopelessness. Booth's work drew opposition and sometimes even brutal persecution. Those with vested interest in living off the misery of the poor - the barkeepers and the brothel masters for example - were angered when their former customers were converted to William Booth's army. A Methodist, he was eventually ordained a minister, with a difference: his was a open air church; he took his ministry to the streets of London and to the country roads. Space does not permit as to describe the now forgotten story of the hell seen by Booth, his wife and family, and their small circle of supporters. To say the least, it was bloody and terrifying. "The Army" produced in those days several martyrs. Notwithstanding, the idea of an army fighting sin caught on and spread across the Empire, in fact the world.
General William Booth dispatched Brigadier Thomas Gale to the colony of Trinidad and Tobago, where crime and poverty held a large section of the population in an awful grip. A veteran of the Jamaican wars against ignorance and indigence, Gale arrived in Trinidad in July 1901, ready to open fire. Realising that this would be an uphill battle, he called for reserves, these arriving under the command of Captain Luther Atkins. "By September of that year, the newly invaded island had several promising converts" writes Doreen Hobbs in her little Book "Jewels of the Caribbean". There was real resistance to the work.
One young volunteer, Lieutenant Lilian Bailey, was knocked down and had to be hospitalised!
The Port of Spain Central Corps became to be known as "Number 1". A member, Brother Whistle, was over 100 years old in 1917, and could remember the days of slavery. The first person to wear the Salvation Army's uniform was the wife of Corps Treasurer Abraham Busby. In 1903, the sailors' home on Queen Street was opened, and seamen, shore labourers and sailors enjoyed its hospitality. "In one year alone, 7,581 meals were supplied and 10,807 men slept at the home," writes Hobbs. In 1913, Trinidad's Governor, Sir George Le Hunte, visited the sailors' home, and must have been duly impressed: in a successive session of the Legislative Council, £520 were granted to the Salvation Army towards a new home for soldiers and sailors.
In the legendary escape from Devil's Island in French Guiana in 1930, 200 men were taken into the care of the Salvation Army and nursed back to strength. But it was not the end of their journey: they were just placed in groups on safer vessels, and with 10 days' rations on board were tugged back out into international waters and left to their own devices to find refuge somewhere else! One of the fugitives was René Belbenoît, who in his much-acclaimed books about Devil's Island "Dry Guillotine" and "Hell on Trial" wrote about his Salvation Army experience in Trinidad.
In 1908, a central hall was opened in Port of Spain by the then Governor, the Hon. Adam Smith. Number 3 in Belmont also got accommodations. Number 2 Corps was located in Tragarete Road. Colour Sergeant Goring distinguished himself as an enthusiastic leader of the open-air brigade in those early years. Other significant names of the first decade of the 20th century at Tragarete Road were Corps Secretary H.O. Thomas and Corps Treasurer Henry Lewis. It was only half a century later, in 1955, that Tragarete Road received a new hall and quarters.
Another long-standing local officer of "Number 1" was Corps Sergeant-Major Ralph Hoyte, who had come from Barbados. He got married to Martha Gibbs and raised five children in the Salvation Army ethos.
In 1907, the Tunapuna Corps was launched. General Frederick Coutts cut the ribbon personally 59 years later, in 1966, and Brigadier Edna Burgess opened the Army hall in Tunapuna.
The early years of the Salvation Army in Tobago were first recorded in 1909, but it is possible that a Corps was established there before that year. But it was not until 30 years later, in 1939, that the Tobago representative on the Legislative Council, the Hon. George de Nobriga, opened a brand new hall for the Corps in Scarborough. "Now, as the steamer from Trinidad drops anchor in Scarborough Bay, one of the first sights that meets the eye is a pleasing two-store y building right on the sea-front bearing the Salvation Army sign." (The War Cry, June 1939, as quoted by Hobbs). Serving in the Salvation Army in Tobago in the formative years were Brigadier Edward J. Bax, Lieut.-Colonel Gordon Simpson, Captain Shepherd, Captain Skeete and Lieutenant Davis, to name but a few.