Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
William Booth was born in 1829 in Nottingham. He converted to Methodism at the age of 15 and became a Methodist lay preacher. At the age of 20 he moved to London to find work and continued to preach, originally through Methodist organisations and later independently. He established The Christian Mission in the East End with his wife Catherine in 1865 where he preached to the very poor and those on the fringes of society that included alcoholics, criminals and prostitutes. The movement grew and attracted more preachers, always believing they had to take the message of the gospel to the people in the street rather than waiting for the people to visit a chapel. Booth believed the organisation was fighting a spiritual battle against sin and, to reflect this, the movement became known as The Salvation Army in 1878. The military metaphor was extended – the preachers within the organisation became known as officers with military ranks who wore a quasi-military uniform and the organisation’s newspaper was named The War Cry.
As the 19th century continued, The Salvation Army came to the realisation that poverty and hunger was standing in the way of their evangelical message and consequently set up soup kitchens for those living in extreme poverty. The social aspect of their work grew significantly, the evangelical message going hand in hand with more practical work. The movement met with a lot of opposition, not just from heckling and disruption during their outdoor services but also from the established churches and even Lord Shaftesbury. Nevertheless, the work continued and ministries were founded in many overseas countries including the United States, Australia, India and some European countries.
General Booth died in 1912 by which time hostility towards the Salvation Army had lessened considerably and he had become a respected public figure. Within hours of his death, an Indian merchant prince and non Christian, Sir Ratan Tata, got in touch with the Salvation Army’s international headquarters and suggested that a training college for officers be erected as a memorial and pledged about £6,600 towards the cost. Probably due to delays that occurred as a result of World War I, it was not until November 1924 that it was announced that prominent architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had been appointed to design the Memorial College.
Seven and a half acres of land had been acquired in Champion Park opposite Denmark Hill Station where ten large detached houses with long gardens had previously stood. Situated very near the summit of Denmark Hill, the site was deliberately chosen so the college would rise above its surroundings to form a prominent landmark and create a sense of awe. The architect’s brief was to design an impressive set of buildings that reflected the military nature of the Salvation Army, indeed the metaphor went so far as to refer to the college as a garrison (see below), though the fortress-like design of the administration building is softened by gothic stone carvings. The complex consists of training blocks and accommodation blocks which, when first built, catered for 600 students, known as cadets, who would receive instruction of a scholastic, theological, spiritual and practical nature. The College was opened by Prince George, later the Duke of Kent, in July 1929 who also unveiled statues of William and Catherine Booth in the forecourt.
The statues and the administration building were Grade II listed in 1972. More blocks were later added and the administration building has recently undergone extensive refurbishment.
The 190 ft high tower of the William Booth Training College is a familiar landmark, rising high above South London. It form the focal point of a training college complex built as a memorial to William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army.