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The Skeleton Army in Potton

The Skeleton Army was a protest movement against the temperance activities of the Salvation Army, whose name it mocked. It is first encountered in Whitechapel [Middlesex] in the 1880s and also sprang up in Weston-super-Mare [Somerset] (which claimed to be the origin of the movement) and Exeter [Devon] in 1881 and other parts of the south of England followed. The army would disrupt Salvation Army marches by throwing things, marching along beside them loudly blowing musical instruments and, sadly, by physically assaulting them.

In 1882 in Beatty v. Gillbanks it was decided that it was legal for the Skeleton Army to carry out marches. Despite this in Worthing [Sussex] in 1884 the police, the Salvation Army and the Skeletons had a three-way stand-off before a riot broke out instigated by the Skeletons who also tried to burn down the local Salvation Army barracks. Other parts of the country saw similar riots but by 1893 the movement was on the wane.

Potton’s brush with the Skeleton Army came when the new Salvation Army barracks was opened on 1st June 1890. This was in Bull Street, home of two licensed premises - the King's Head and the Green Man

The Skeleton War Cry of 15th April 1890 [CRT130Potton17] had a piece by “Sponshus Pilate” who called himself “Pope of Sandy” and addressed his letter from “The Synagogue, Sandy”. He referred to trouble which had accompanied the laying of the barracks’ foundation stone and incited further action of the opening of the barracks as follows: “To the blessed Army of Skeletons at Potton: Dearly beloved Brethren, Although being unable to be present at the ceremony of the stone-laying of the Salvation Army Barracks at Potton, I shall endeavour to visit you at the opening of that holey temple, when I trust the Skeletons will muster in good force for another grand field day. I read the account of your glorious battle with a glad heart, and it is with much pleasure that I congratulate you on the splendid victory you accomplished”.

“I hope you will continue to fight the good fight, and win the cause you have so dearly at heart by completely wiping off the face of your noble town that miserable hungry guy fawkes breed of individuals who profess to show you the way to glory, and who have never been there themselves. But do not be misled, dear brethren, stick to your ground old Captain, and the result of your labours will either be the complete abolishment of the enemy at Potton, or the dingy ranting house will be attacked by a plague of locusts, or otherwise an earthquake will swallow up those second handed looking stones they have just laid”.

“I trust you will not be too bitter against your enemy at present, for at the final battle which takes place at the opening of their holey tabernacle, there is sure to be great sorrow in their ranks; there will also be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over their past sins. So treat them with respect, dear brethren, until then – provide them with plenty of Beecham’s Pills – castor oil, hair oil, jalap, treacle and vinegar, and I will offer up special prayers for your protection and guidance against all dangers that may be caused by this mock religion that has been introduced in your midst. I am sorry they are no better judge”.

“I conclude with my blessing to you all, and remain your well wisher”.

Another letter was supposedly from Ally Sloper, a ne’er-do-well layabout cartoon character featured in the magazine Judy from 1867 and later in his own comic Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday from 1887 to 1916. “Ally Sloper” wrote as follows: “More power to your elbows, Skeletons. My old heart rejoiceth at your victory. My score at the Pub has filled the slate through continued toasting of the Skeleton Army. I fancy this is really the cause of Mr. Go-ch-n’s Surplus [George Goschen, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1887-1892] but he knowing my extreme modesty, did not mention my name in the Budget. Tootsie says I have been drunk for a month, but it was really the intoxication of joy, joy at your success, my noble Skeletons. I intend being present at your next fight, so lay in a good stock of ammunition (unsweetened). I shall smite them hip and thigh, with great slaughter, Tootsie is coming to place the V. C. on my noble breast. Adieu, till then, with pious regards”.

Despite the bellicosity of all this, and the violence, sometimes fatal, which attended such Skeleton gatherings in other parts of the country Bedfordshire Skeletons seemed more peaceful and reasonable as The Salvation Army newspaper The War Cry wrote: "... the skeletons did all the shouting and we had only the opportunity of blessing them by showing unruffled love in answer to the disturbance in our proceedings ... The skeleton flag was out with its coffin, skull and cross-bones as well as the whole Skeleton force, uniformed, beating a drum, playing flutes, whirling rattles and screaming through trumpets. One of their chosen leaders was carried shoulder high, ringing a bell and attired in an untrimmed coal-scuttle bonnet. I noticed that the publicans looked pleased to see this array and several waved their hats. But we were good friends of the skeletons, twelve of whom sat at our tea table ... Their leaders were very courteous and sincerely desirous of keeping their somewhat rabble followers within bounds. Almost implicit obedience was given them. Their skeleton War Cry was freely sold, but doesn’t quite beat the original" [CRT130Potton17].