A remarkable moment in Worthing’s history will be recreated this summer: the moment the town went to war with the Salvation Army.
It’s a tale which will be told in a massive community production boasting 50 speaking parts and a total cast of 200, at Christ Church on Saturdays, June 14, 21 and 28 at 2pm.
The final performance will be the culmination of a two-year journey for writer and director Ann Feloy. And for the church, it will have cemented its place at the heart of the community.
Ann explains: “This is a Heritage Lottery-funded project with the lead partner being Christ Church, the venue for the production. Basically, Christ Church wanted to do more outreach work. It is this amazing parish church, a beautiful flint building, but a lot of people don’t really even know it is there, and the congregation was dwindling. They just wanted to put it at the front of people’s minds that it is the parish church. There was a feeling that it was rather overlooked.
“We spent the whole year researching. We had teams of researchers looking at the people that were buried in the churchyard, the people that would have gone to the church, the people that lived in this old part of the community. That was the first part of the project which was run by my husband Chris.
“And then we ran a devising day, and then we had a brain-storming about how to create a play using the characters that we had been researching. We focused on the Victorian era, set in the 1880s. 1883-84 was a very significant time because of the Skeleton Army riots against the Salvation Army in Worthing.
“Basically, the Salvation Army was formed by William Booth out of the East End of London. They were missionaries, very much a youth movement in terms of a great desire to change the world, to stop people drinking and leading debauched lives and to try to save people for Jesus. It was run very much along the lines of a military organisation. Hence the Salvation Army.
“The other thing that was so shocking was that it was very much about equal rights for women and men. The corps came down from London to Worthing, led by Captain Ada Smith who was only 23. You can imagine this young girl leading this army, this incredible, vibrant, youth army, and it was shocking to see these young people in uniform marching and calling people sinners and demanding that they repent of their wicked ways.
“It was very disturbing, not only to the upper classes, but also to the working classes. The working classes in particular were a fishing community, and they would obviously have their drink and see nothing wrong with that. They reacted violently towards the Salvation Army, and it resulted in a riot of 4,000 people on the streets. One person was injured and later died of wounds.”
In the play, every single character is based on someone who lived at that time: “Where we can, I have used verbatim reports of their speeches from the newspapers of the time. One thing that prompted the riot was that Captain Ada Smith went to the courts to seek protection. That was reported in the Worthing Gazette, as it then was. She went to the magistrates to ask for protection on the streets from the mob, the people of Worthing, and the magistrates, the ruling classes who didn’t want the Salvation Army in the town anyway, said ‘No. You have brought this on yourselves!’ And that led to the riots.”
Most of the tickets have been allocated to the performers and their families; some may be available from Jenny Thomson on 07877 784828.