The Skeleton Army

Find out about the true story of Captian Ada Smith, The Worthing Salvation & Skeleton Armies from 1884. Watch an interview with historian Chris Hare below.

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On April 3rd 1884 a Captain Ada Smith was appointed as the new officer in charge of the Worthing Salvation Army.

The first hall used by the army, known as the “barracks”, was down a narrow brick alley about eight yards long in an upper story of an old warehouse in Prospect Place. Half way up the alley was a side door of a liquor shop.

The Salvation Army Flag

Offended by the army’s attacks on liquor, the shop keeper had barricaded the passage following a high spirited army protest. The landlord of the warehouse tore the barricade down and from then on opposition was massing against the Salvation Army.

Further protest from the citizens of Worthing came when a mystery person daubed the alley walls each week with a black sticky curtain of tar, which played havoc with their uniforms as they marched out in procession.

Still determined to maintain a regular open air witness, the army carried on regardless.

It was the signal the citizens had awaited. Within days a skeleton army 4000 strong was formed in the town for the express purpose of putting down the Salvation Armys' open air work.

Each man would recognise his fellows through a distinctive flash. A small piece of yellow ribbon with the motto “Excelsior” tagged to his cloth cap. Those who supported them wore sunflowers in their button holes or had walking sticks with skull and cross bones handles.

But all knew the flag they followed, a human skeleton topped by a grinning skull, stark white against a jet black back ground. The drunken gangs of skeletons who harried Captain Ada's little band of twenty through the streets, lobbing egg shells charged with blue paint, met with the towns folk full approval.

The Skeleton And Salvation Armies

Until further notice Captain Ada Smith and her band were confined to barracks. General Booth wanted written assurance that the West Sussex County Constabulary would keep a fatherly eye on them. But the Chief Constable sat securely on the fence, he would treat both sides with impartiality.

Booth was now beside himself and wrote a blistering memo to the Home Office saying that “Worthing magistrates simply refused to summon rif-raf molesting the Salvation Army.” the Home Secretary Sir Willam Harcourt stood by the letter of the law and had no power over local authorities.

General Booth ordered Captain Ada Smith’s army to march on Sundays.

The Worthing Police foresaw trouble and reserve constables were drafted from out lying districts. By 2pm on Sunday 17th August, Captain Ada Smith marshalled her troops outside the rented Montague Hall watched by the hooting rabble of the Skeleton Army. Along the route Police packed the pavements gripping truncheons.

For almost an hour a uneasy calm prevailed but as the Salvationists drew near Montague Hall, with their route completed, the Skeletons struck.

Running, they soon out distanced Captain Ada's band by thirty yards. Halting, they turned, faces flushed and contemptuous. There was a shocked momentary stillness. Then, with a wild bull roar, they charged.

The quiet stretch of Bath Place was suddenly a sea of screaming men battling amid brick dust and broken glass.

Captain Ada Smith

The crimson and blue, blood and fire banner of The Salvation Army swayed then toppled like a sapling.

With truncheons flailing, the police burst through; with bottles and boots, the skeletons fought back, intent on retaining their own banner. The Salvation Army retreated back to barracks but the Skeletons tried to burn the place down.

Mr George Head, the landlord, confronted the mob with a revolver and some of the spectators were shot and wounded. Mr George Head was brought to the bench on a charge of feloniously and maliciously wounding a young man name Olliver.

Following the restoration of law and order, the barracks on the site in Crescent Road were opened in 1887 and the present citadel built in 1912.