The Making of a Social Reformer

Nottingham in the 1800s
Nottingham in the 1800s

William Booth’s Rough Start

It could have gone so well. His father, Samuel Booth, had made some money, quite a lot of money, and then lost some money, quite a lot of money.

His business ventures and investments (as a nail manufacturer and then builder) rose and fell and then, early into his second marriage, they crashed beyond recovery.

Samuel and his first wife, Sarah, had enjoyed some prosperity, living in a large house in a village outside Nottingham. But it didn’t last. After Sarah’s death, and the death of their only child five years later, Booth Sr. had to scale down.

But first he remarried. It doesn’t appear to have been a happy match. He was already sliding steadily downhill towards hardship. William describes his father as obsessed with making money. His mother, Mary, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, was 16 years younger than Samuel and was 33 when they married.

The inevitable happened. They left the big house and moved to a relatively poor suburb of Nottingham, where William was born in April 1829.

William Booth was the only (surviving) boy of the family with one older sister and two younger sisters.

Their situation went from downsizing to considerable losses to outright ruin. Booth wrote, ‘bad times set in, heavy losses followed one on the heels of the other, making the early days a season of mortification and misery.’[i]

It would seem that both parents were somewhat ashamed of their situation, with few friends and few visitors to the family home.

There were brief moments of relief but Samuel was never able to lift his family to financial stability.

The exploitation of the poor - Behind a Pawnbroker's Counter
The vulnerability of the poor – Behind a Pawnbroker’s Counter

Out to work at 13

Although William had attended a good school, at the age of thirteen his father was no longer able to afford the school fees and he was sent to work as an apprentice to a pawnbroker. This experience of badly paid work, and particularly of seeing his employer profiting from the vulnerability of the poor had a profound effect on Booth.

He writes,

‘I had scarcely any income as an apprentice, and was so hard up when my father died, that I could do next to nothing to assist my dear mother and sisters, which was the cause of no little humiliation and grief.’

‘The system of apprenticeship in those days generally bound a lad for six or seven years. During this time he received little or no wages, and was required to slave from early morning to late evening upon the supposition that he was ‘being taught’ the business, which, if he had a good master, was probably true.

It was a severe but useful time of learning. My master was a Unitiarian – that is, he did not believe Christ was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, but only the best of teachers; yet so little had he learned of Him that his heaven consisted in making money, strutting around with his gay wife, and regaling himself with worldly amusements.

At nineteen, the weary years of my apprenticeship came to an end. I had done my six years’ service, and was heartily glad to be free from the humiliating bondage they had proved.

I tried hard to find some kind of labour that would give me more liberty to carry out the aggressive ideas which I had by this time come to entertain as to saving the lost; but I failed. For twelve months I waited. Those months were among the most desolate of my life. No one took the slightest interest in me.

Failing to find employment in Nottingham, I had to move away.’[ii]

For the next post, on Booth’s conversion and the church’s resistance to his early converts click here

For the first part in this series on The Salvation Army click here

© 2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:26

[ii] Quoted in George Railton, General Booth (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912) p.5-6

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