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corps history

One hundred years ago the man they call the General next to God spearheaded an attack on Ireland.

Five soldiers were dispatched to set up battle headquarters in the heart of Belfast at Felt Street, Sandy Row.

They were women and the war they were waging was a war of love.

It was May 4, 1880.

Their cause was glorifying God in the Salvation Army, an organization then only 15 years old and led by a breakaway Methodist preacher called William Booth.

Today the five, Captains Reynolds, Spencer, Marshal, Strong and Lt. Polly Flynn might have been called Christian revolutionaries.

So the struggle to win Irish hearts to Jesus Christ in a controversial new way began.

The Belfast Citadel Corps of the Salvation Army grew and grew until in 1908 ever-swelling crowds anxious to hear this new style religion for themselves, forced local leaders to look for a bigger meeting hall.

True to form, Booth, who often boasted that God could better use the devil's tunes, suggested that He take over the devil's music halls as well. The Hippodrome in Great Victoria Street in Belfast city centre- now the New Vic Cinema -became the new venue for Salvation Army meetings.

And to help the crusade along Booth himself travelled to Belfast on January 19, 1908. He led the service in front of a crowd of 1,500 from the stage of the Hippodrome.

But according to Belfast Citadel's commanding officers of the day, Adjutant and Mrs Davison, the cost to the corps of renting the Hippodrome was too high- even when the General himself was a guest.

Adjudant Davison wrote in the corps history log:

"Visit of the General. Meetings a great success and it was suggested by headquarters that we continue meetings in the Hippodrome as an experiment. We did so and had audiences reaching 1500. Still the offering did not meet the extra expense which was £5 for the Sunday evening. The Hippodrome manager did not make the building comfortably warm. We were perished - not sufficient in my judgement to justify the expense."

In May the following year William Booth returned to Belfast to conduct meetings. Since it was now early summer and slightly warmer, they were again held in the Hippodrome.

Belfast Citadel continued to expand. During one memorable day's meetings alone 54 people made their way to the penitent form and many subsequently enrolled as fully committed Salvationists.

The Corps had also accumulated enough funds for new instruments for the bandsmen. In November 1909, twelve new instruments were bought at a staggering cost of £50 for the lot.

As well as winning people to the service of God, Belfast Citadel Corps was renowned for its welfare work.

Frequent free dinners were given to the poor of Belfast and needy children were often invited to collect an orange and an item of clothing each as they filed out of the hall after meetings.

But the fore-runners of the Citadel's Women's Fellowship - (a women's institute with a difference who meet socially, act as caterers when necessary and have recently formed themselves into a choir) often complained of the expenses of their activities. It was recorded in June 1919 that "two days with God" during a visit to Belfast's Ulster Hall by the general cost too much by way of refreshments. They found that catering was not profitable since "commodities were so high in price".

By the 1920's the Citadel on the present site at Dublin Road was taking shape. A glass sign was erected over the door at a cost of £34, three armchairs for the platform and twelve collection baskets were bought as well as a new gas cooker and boiler for the kitchen.

As a sideline the soldiers of the Citadel started a scheme to collect a mile and a half of pennies - for more new band instruments.

Numbers grew in the Songster Brigade too and under Songster Leader Jim Dixon the Citadel's Brigade left for a series of meetings in England at Newcastle Temple Corps.

By now the Citadel was sending off young people to train as Salvation Army officers and the roll of soldiers was lengthening all the time. During one 45th Anniversary meeting 150 people queued up to kneel at the penitent form.

A building fund was launched to pay for the hall at Dublin Road which amounted to £3011 8s 1d for both the senior and junior halls.

In 1930 came the fiftieth anniversary celebrations by the Citadel, led by none other than Phoebe Strong one of the famous five women who "opened fire" in Ireland in 1880.

She had left Ireland many years before, married and settled in the United States. As Mrs Staff Captain Allen, Phoebe toured the streets of Belfast on her return inviting people to attend the anniversary meetings, the first of which was held in the old music hall in May Street.

She drew attention to herself and what she had to say by walking round the city centre ringing a large hand bell.

The next month, August, another special guest visited Belfast - Colonel Mary Booth. She arrived at a massive open air rally in Sandy Row in a jaunting car.

The same year a further milestone was recorded in the history of The Salvation Army as a whole in Ireland.

The Citadel's history book reports:

"On Tuesday December 9, the first Salvation Army wedding to be celebrated in the Free State of Ireland was conducted by Commandant E Bentley in Dublin hall".

But tragedy struck twelve months later with the death of a much-loved comrade Major Lilian Goodwin who at that time was matron of Thorndale House.

Major Goodwin had gone with a party of officers on a trip to the Glens of Antrim. During a walk in the glens, she slipped and toppled over a cliff-side into a river below. It was not until some time later that her body was recovered.

In 1932 the spotlight settled on the Citadel Band in its golden jubilee celebrations under Bandmaster Wilson. Guest bandmaster for the occasion was H.W. Twitchin from Regent Hall in London and one of the individual items in the special music festival for the occasion was a cornet duet by Bandsmen John Shaw and John Young. Meanwhile the junior band was flourishing under the leadership of David Mulryne.

As usual in a crisis when war was declared the Salvation Army provided much needed help, not least Belfast Citadel. A canteen and rest room were opened adjoining the Citadel building, used frequently by service men.

On VE day the band and songsters were on duty for a victory march to the City Hall grounds where a service of thanksgiving was held which resounded through the City Hall loudspeakers.

Six years later the band was on the march again this time to an international venue - Holland for ten days. Less than eighteen months later retired Bandmaster John Wilson MBE was promoted to Glory - he held position for over 30 years.

With Major and Mrs David Hankey as commanding officers the visit was returned in 1956 when the Dutch National Band visited Northern Ireland for meetings in the Assembly Hall, Belfast.

The same year Belfast Citadel lost its oldest soldier. The widow of the late Sergeant Major Alex Hopkins and Number One on the roll died in October aged 93.

Two more deaths of Citadel stalwarts were to come in the next ten years. In 1963 Sergeant Major James Dixon died. He was not only a prominent member of the Army in Belfast but had served on the Belfast City Council for eight years and had been chairman of the city's Welfare Committee.

Three years later Bandsman Charles Baird was killed in an accident at work. A former officer he opened corps in Enniskillen and Banbridge before settling in Belfast.

Just a year before his death the Citadel band had a once-in-a-lifetime chance of playing in the Royal Albert Hall in London during the 1965 Salvation Army centenary celebrations. With them went the Citadel's Verse-speaking team under their leader Mrs Marion Shaw.

The year 1969 saw the start of the Over 60's Club and the Young Women's Fellowship in the Citadel led by Brigadier and Mrs John Mitchell.

But for the first time ever soldiers of the Citadel did not march to the Cenotaph at the City Hall on Remembrance Day.

For the "Ulster Troubles" had begun. Brigadier Mitchell recorded in the corps log:

"No march to cenotaph. This was the corps decision owing to the unsettled state of the city. By virtue of an Order In Council we were permitted to march every Sunday but the officers and locals thought it better if we did not exercise our right on this occasion".

When the next commanding officers, Major and Mrs Thomas Wilkinson were appointed to the Citadel in May 1971 they could not have known that their stay in a now troubled city would mark the end of an era for Belfast's Number One Corps. For seven months later the old familiar building in Dublin Road was to vanish in a bomb attack.

The last meeting held in the old Citadel was a memorial service for Songster Sergeant Minnie Hewitt. By the same time the next day the building was flattened.

The corps history relates the events of that fateful day December 6.

"At approximately 3pm a bomb was placed in a carpet shop beside the Citadel. Petrol was sprayed around and soon the whole block was a blazing inferno. Lt Col Snape, Major Wilkinson, Recruiting Sergeant Billy Williamson and Lurgan Corps Sergeant Major Wesley Pentland were soon on the scene.

Band instruments, the piano, electric organ, Holiness Table chairs and anything moveable were taken to safety. At about 5.30 pm the Corps Secretary and Brother Williamson entered the building to remove the marriage register, papers and cash from the safe."

The log goes on to tell how at 6pm the following people went into the now dangerous building - Young People's Sergeant Major Rodney Archer, Ass. Corps Sergeant Major David Campbell, Band Colour Sergeant R. Moore and Bandsman and Mrs Sammy Thompson.

While they were there a main wall collapsed and all were buried beneath the rubble. They were rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital where Mrs Mamie Thompson later died.

Mrs Thompson's funeral, watched by hundreds of people who lined the streets, took place on December 9th.

But the Citadel pressed on with its work and meetings were switched to an abandoned church in nearby Botanic Avenue.

A second major building fund was launched but this time the Citadel had to be started from scratch.

Work finally began on the new building on the same site in July '74 just as the new commanding officers were taking over. They were Captain and Mrs James Bruce, the first officers to command the corps with the rank of Captain since 1899.

On June 28 1975 the new Citadel was opened by the British Commissioner Geoffrey Dalziel. It had cost the Army £129250 - over forty times as much as the original.

Undaunted Belfast Citadel Corps has picked up the threads of its long history now going back 100 years.

And in the words of the parting message to the people of Belfast Citadel from a former commanding officer the late Brigadier John Mitchell - "The best is yet to be".

Captain Ian Barr

From The Belfast Citadel Centenary Brochure May 1980

The corps history is still being written !

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