The Nottingham Essay: Catherine Booth (17 January 1829 – 4 October 1890)

Catherine Mumford was born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire on 17 January, 1829 to strict Methodist parents. During childhood she was forbidden from dossing about with other kids for fear that she may ‘catch’ their bad habits. By twelve, she’d read the Bible eight times and given up sugar in protest at the treatment of Negroes. By her late teens she’d joined the Temperance Movement. She would meet her perfect match in William Booth, a man who also excelled in self-denial. Through marriage they made a formidable partnership, sharing an uncompromising set of values that would define the Salvation Army and radically transform the fate of the poor.         

As you’d expect from the daughter of an occasional lay preacher, Catherine was a serious and sensitive kid. However it was a spinal problem in 1842 that left her bedridden for months – and would plague her for the rest of her life – that defined her as a person. From her bed she studied theology which would underpin her various moral crusades and lead to her penning some exceptional sermons that would challenge the religious establishment as well as books on Christian living.

She first met William Booth in 1852 at a tea party hosted by Edward Rabbits, a wealthy benefactor who William was trying to tap up. Prior to this both Catherine and William had been visiting the sick in their native Brixton and Nottingham. They were destined for each other. A month later were formally engaged. As their biographer Roy Hattersley notes, ‘In all nineteenth century England there could not have been a couple in which both husband and wife held such strong opinions – and felt such an obligation to impose them on other people.’

William Booth was notoriously averse to reading, seeing theological study as an indulgence that got in the way of proper work. But this didn’t wash with Catherine who accepted no excuses when it came to self-improvement. In one typically condescending letter to William, she put his lack of reading down to poor time management; ‘Could you not rise by six o’clock every morning and convert your bedroom into a study until breakfast time?’

If William was the brawn then Catherine was definitely the brains of the Salvation Army. Her studious nature meant she was able to bring about change through logical and rational enquiry. She was instrumental in creating equality within their ranks by introducing female ministers able to command over men.


illustration: Lexie Mac

Unlike her husband, all of Catherine’s beliefs were built on solid fact and biblical exegesis. When William originally opposed women ministers she simply dug deeper for evidence. She eventually found it in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Chapter III, Verse 28, which stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’.

Catherine published her arguments in various pamphlets and directly challenged religious patriarchy. This was a highly contentious thing to do in 1850s Britain. But the Booths were never ones to worry about public opinion. The only person they were answerable to was Him upstairs.

In stark contrast to William’s histrionics in the pulpit, Catherine’s preaching style, according to the Wesleyan Times, was “no empty boisterousness or violent and cursing declamation, but a calm and simple statement of the unreasonableness of sin.” She brought something different to the table, enabling the Army to diversify its appeal, and it was this that convinced William to embrace spiritual equality.

Catherine’s logical and persuasive arguments were perfect for playing on bourgeois guilt where wasting money on ‘a single bottle of wine for the jovial entertainment of friends’ was an insult to the hardships suffered by the poor. She appealed to their goodwill and conscience, arguing their ‘knowledge of the awful state of things in the world around them must make them fully aware of the good that might be done with the money which they lavish upon their lusts’. Sermons such as this would inspire two wealthy benefactors to donate the costs of hiring their first permanent home in the East End of London.

Preaching brought her into direct contact with deprived communities whose problems were largely caused through alcohol abuse. Catherine started a national campaign raising awareness of the perils of drink and later had abstinence from alcohol written into the Salvation Army’s constitution. She also demanded greater protection for women through the law and recruited women from the working classes, her ‘Hallelujah Lasses’, to support women and children in slum districts. But her crowning glory was getting the age of consent raised from thirteen to sixteen, which helped address child prostitution.

Catherine was against sending children to boarding school on the grounds that their principles were not fully developed and therefore may be more prone to temptation. She believed that it was parents who should provide a Christian upbringing, not headmasters. In her sermons she compared a child brought up without love like a plant without sunlight. However as she was often absent from the home this role often fell to the governess.

Despite her clear love for her eight children, it couldn’t have been much fun for them growing up. They lived a pretty nomadic lifestyle, dragged from town to town, while being subjected to the strictest of rules from their righteous and bigoted parents. The Booths believed that clothing was a form of vanity and so any unnecessary frippery was unstitched before they could wear it. Inevitably their offspring became pious and earnest which led to a fair few kickings in the playground.

The Booths dogmatic regime of constant prayer and absolute discipline meant the children were raised in conditions that make the Taliban look liberal. Sports were banned, they had to take a cold bath everyday – apart from the Sabbath – and their frugal father’s idea of a treat was a scattering of currants on the daily bowl of rice pudding. But only on exceptional occasions.

Matters were made worst by Catherine’s gradual immobility. The birth of eight children had left her an invalid. Although this did not stop her preaching, it had a morbid effect on her moods. During this period melancholy was deemed a disease of the spirit and therefore the ultimate blasphemy as it suggested a denial of God’s love.         

In 1887 Catherine was diagnosed with breast cancer but, stoic as ever, refused an operation. As she lay on her deathbed a band was brought into her bedroom, not for personal comfort but so that all of the musicians who she had inspired over the years could show their respects. She was ‘Promoted to Glory’ in 1890 and her body was laid out in Clapton Congress Hall so that 50,000 mourners could visit over five days. A further 36,000 attended her official funeral on 13 October with a procession of 3,000 officers, each wearing white armbands to celebrate her life. And there was plenty to celebrate. She had persuaded William that women were the intellectual and moral equal of men. That it was nurture not nature that held them back and that “if we are to better the future we must disturb the present.” It would take a World War before women won the right to vote in 1918. But it was only in January this year that the Church of England consecrated their first female bishop. Her fight goes on.  

The above article was originally published in the Sept 2015 issue of LeftLion magazine as part of the City of Literature series. Two months later Nottingham was accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature. The source for this article is Roy Hattersley’s superb Blood And Fire: William and Catherine Booth and the Salvation Army. The video was created by Josh Dunne, a 2nd year media student from Nottingham Trent University as part of a placement scheme with Dawn of the Unread. 

The Importance of Economic Literacy

illustration: Natalie Owen

illustration: Natalie Owen

I’ve been harping on about the importance of literacy for ages but never in terms of economic literacy. As we’re all expected to work zero hour contracts perhaps it’s about time we had a zero hour mortgage…

First off, let’s have a few statistics about the miserable mess we’re in. I’m not talking about Brexit, Trident or the prospect of Big Sam becoming the next England manager. I’m talking about two four letter words that define our lives: work and home.

According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) there were 10,732 repossessions of rented and mortgaged homes by bailiffs between January and March. Although this was down by 123 during the same period in 2015, it was up by 479 for the final quarter of 2015. But we should be grateful as The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) believe if repossessions continue to drop at the current rate we’ll be at our lowest annual numbers since 1982. Back when houses were affordable.

There are some reasons to be cheerful in terms of buying a property. The standard variable rate for a mortgage has plummeted and a rise in stamp duty has slightly halted property developers from  swallowing up entire streets. But this has been offset by the ridiculous increase in house prices that simply make it impossible for anyone to save up a deposit, let alone get a mortgage. I bought my first home when I was twenty-one and it was roughly 3 times my annual wage. My current home is 7 times my annual wage. The house is the same size.

This may explain why rents in both the social and private sectors have risen this year by around 7-9%. The landlords who’ve had their wings clipped by the Chancellor are passing this cost onto those who can’t afford to get onto the property ladder. According to the MoJ there were 10,636 evictions during the first quarter of the year. Expect this to increase, as the cap on housing allowance kicked in at the beginning of April. Then there’s the 7.2million, according to Churchill Insurance, who have moved back in with the parents because a relationship ended and are too poor to rent alone.

For those without the luxury of parents, there’s the streets. You always know when the privileged are in power because the number of people ‘begging’ zooms up. On an average walk across town I probably get stopped between 5-10 times for ‘a spare bit of change’. Expect more of this as hostels, Citizen’s Advice, and public sector support service staff increasingly begin to evaporate.

What we really need is change.

Speaking of which, banks have a lot of loose change at the moment. They’ve saved a bundle in wages by adopting the trend set by supermarkets and kitting out their stores with self-service machines. The unidentified item in the bagging area is staff. People are losing their jobs in every area of work as technology slowly takes hold. Ring up for a taxi and you’ll no longer be put through to a call centre of eternally bored operators. Instead there’s an efficient automated service that tells you where you want picking up from before you’ve even said a word. And you know things are seriously wrong when Waitrose gets in on the trend and dismisses checkout staff in favour of self-service machines.

Banks need to cut back on wages because they’ve finally been caught with their pants down. According to the CCP Research Foundation the top twenty banks paid out £252bn in conduct charges over the past five years, such as the six banks fined a record £4.3bn for rigging foreign exchange rates and Lloyds £4bn penalty for mis-selling of payment protection insurance. So why exactly did we bail out the banks again?

According to the Sutton Trust, the poorest British students will graduate with debts in excess of £50,000. (In the US, by contrast, where students study for an extra year, the average debt at a private for-profit university is £29,000.) Although state-sponsored loans are linked to future earnings, these debts are subject to inflation so the money keeps going up. Students who studied a decade or so ago will tell you that although their debts were a lot cheaper, the loans have been sold off to debt agencies, despite the promise that they wouldn’t be, and now fear earning a penny above a certain threshold because it will trigger larger repayments.

For those of us fortunate enough to have a job there is the constant restructuring of departments and the shoehorning of two jobs into one, and for an added bonus, with reduced hours. Some of us have had our wages frozen for so long we have to put gloves on when we draw money out the bank. We’re told we should be grateful that we’ve got a job, and expected to smile when we receive the ‘Happy Friday’ email wishing us the very best for the weekend and remembering not to be late back in on Monday.

For adolescents who’ve skipped F.E. there’s the temp agencies where you’re guaranteed the minimum of work for the minimum amount of money. One lad I spoke to told me he had to drive to Grimsby to do a two hour shift and he wasn’t paid for his petrol or the four hours the round trip took. He had to do it because if he refused they wouldn’t consider him for other work. Work left him out of pocket. Of course this is completely illegal but it goes on all the time. ‘Calm down and carry on’ is the expression. This translates as ‘Shut up and do as you’re told’.

Zero hours contracts are the reality for most of us now. University lecturers are paid by the term and join an expendable workforce who can be got rid of with the flicker of an eyebrow. And this is where the Big Society steps in. The volunteers who run our libraries. The volunteers who cut down the forests. The volunteers who write for free for magazines because they have the deluded idea they can make a difference. So in some respects we’ve been complicit.

All of which finally gets me to my point. If we are expected to live flexibly in a big society on zero hours contracts, isn’t it time we had a more flexible mortgage, a ‘zero-hours’ mortgage, to reflect the reality of our lives?

A zero-hours mortgage would work exactly like a zero-hours contract. If there’s no work, there’s no mortgage payment. Simple. It’s not your fault that you’re losing your job in the call centre to the latest Siri. If you do work a few hours then you pay a proportionate payment. Yes, calculating this could be tedious but isn’t that better than repossessing a home and putting a family out on the street, which is ultimately more costly for society?

A university lecturer told me recently that universities need to throw out all of their liberal newspapers and stock the Financial Times. He said that’s where the power is, in the things people don’t understand. The things that are deliberately made complicated. For this reason he believes economics should be at the heart of everything that it is taught, no matter what the discipline. It’s for this reason that I’ve joined a reading group where we are slowly working our way through Karl Marx’s Capital Volume One, reading one hundred pages per week. It’s complicated, but far more humorous and literary than I would have imagined. I don’t believe in communism, and I certainly don’t believe in capitalism in its current manifestation. All I know is that something isn’t right at the moment and the system needs a bit of tinkering. Hopefully this book group – comprised of PhD students, unemployed, artists etc – and from Manchester, Mansfield and other places not necessarily beginning with M will help me figure it out.

The above article was originally published in the August issue of LeftLion magazine and The Axiological Perspective.