The Basingstoke Riots- Did the Salvation Army go too far! 

As part of my dissertation research into the football in Basingstoke in the late nineteenth century, I look at an event which perhaps has gone massively unnoticed in the modern era, but shook the walls of not only the Basingstoke local governance, but a problem for parliament as well.

An image of the old Basingstoke Town Hall in 1841

Basingstoke for those of you that do not know, is a town 19 miles from Basingstoke, but unlike its town brother, has nowhere near as much history. The Basingstoke market was mentioned in the Doomsday book of 1086, but other than that people never state Basingstoke of being a historic place of interest. So how did such a quiet town, go to making headlines in London such as: “About midway between London and Salisbury there is a benighted little town which appears to be inhabited chiefly by a race of barbarians. Can nothing be done for Barbarous Basingstoke?”  (The [London evening] Echo, 15 March 1882) People must have been wondering whether this was The Basingstoke that they were talking about, the one which was only famous for burying a woman, Mrs Bluden, alive twice.

Image of some of the damage of the Massaganians

Basingstoke to the outside world was a town of drunks, with many breweries within the town having a lot of public houses, 50 to be precise. So in 1880 when General Booth, leader of the Salvation Army, ordered in two female officers to sort out the town, who knew the true impact this would have upon the market town. What followed would be disruption for over three years, with the Salvation Army not being welcomed with open arms. The Massagainians, led by the breweries were not so welcoming to the Salvation Army, not accepting the terms of the Salvation Army.

William Booth, leader of the Salvation Army

What followed over the next three years was a series of demonstrations and riots, with the Massaganians doing everything in their power to disrupt these demonstrations; demonstrations from the Salvation Army trying to spread the “word of god”, trying to “cure” the men who had been drinking, and trying to impose a lot of rule upon the people of Basingstoke. As shown earlier, stones were thrown, and in the picture there was damage to the Gazette building, which posted a lot of support for the army. It is no surprise that alcohol was the reasoning behind such actions, with the man who smashed the Gazette building benefiting from a supply of the liquid gold. But through December 1880, it would only be drunken antics which caused rioting amongst the Army corps. Then again, who can blame them for fighting back against the army. Who were they to decide that God’s will was to be their true purpose, that they would act against the drunkards of Basingstoke. Only a small number of the people of Basingstoke respected the army, and near the end of the rioting a lot thought they had outstayed their welcome.

A Pint of Ale, the Reward for the Massagainians, and the reasoning behind the rioting

The worst of the Massaganian attacks upon the Salvation Army came on the Sunday 20th March 1881, when 200 of the dodgy characters in town gathered to harass the Army’s usual Sunday meeting, with numbers gathering to 1000. Though there was a police presence which headed the army, once the onlookers hurled stones, and the Salvation Army ranks had been broken, the police and the mayor- W.B. Blatch the brewer stood back and did nothing. It illustrates just how much of a negative feeling there was towards the Salvation Army, with the town full of brewers, a town that benefited from the brewing industry, did not appreciate the Salvation Army telling them what to do, trying to change the lift that was not so bad.

This march led to the police calling to the mayor to recruit more forces, with 100 extra cops recruited for when the Army marched again on the 27th March. However after this morning, a number of the constables turned up at town hall stating that they would no longer be supporting the hypocritical Army on their  next march. Later in the afternoon, the mayor would not allow the Army to leave their base at the Silk Mill, for fear that the 3000 odd protestors would ruin their march and the peace. This in turn led to the mayor reading the Riot Act, something that was extremely unheard of, and the Royal Horse Artillery, who were rather conveniently visiting at the same time were called in to clear the crowds.

A Group of the Royal Horse Artillery

On 30th August, 20 people appeared at the magistrates, charged with assault and abduction. This was just a small number compared to the people jailed/fined in the 3 year period between 1880 and 1883. After this set of people were charged, a number of the Massaganians had assembled outside the court, creating disruption and harassing a member of the magistrates, leading to 10 rioters jailed. However once these prisoners were released from Winchester, they were greeted to a heroes welcome, being paraded through the streets. It highlighted the fact that the Salvation Army had perhaps outstayed their welcome in Basingstoke. This is further emphasised by the fact that over the next few years, it was still mainly drunken antics that got the riots going, rather than a large number of people doing so. Though the army did stay, can we count their actions as a success? Only a few people were converted to Christianity, and though after a few changes both in the local government and calls from Parliament, there was no real big changes to enforce acts. So whether or not the Salvation Army’s motives can be classed as a success, then you cannot answer.


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