top of page

The Quirky Army – Early Salvo ‘baptised’ in a horse trough

The type of trough Tom Benson would have been dunked in following his conversion after hearing Salvo pioneer John Gore (inset) preach in Adelaide’s Botanic Park.

Firebrand Tom Benson’s quirky conversion

On 15 November 1880, Tom Benson became a Christian and a Salvo. The spot where he came to faith was a tad unusual – kneeling beside “a water trough in Morphett Street, Light’s Square” in Adelaide. Back then, the troughs were commonplace and necessary conveniences, allowing your thirsty mount a drink.

The circumstances of Tom’s conversion were quirky because, on that particular Saturday night, he’d rocked up to the aforementioned spot – where Salvationists publicly gathered to sing, witness and pray – to indulge in a bit of horseplay with the Salvos.“[With 14] others, I left the Hotel Galateer, a very low place at the time, to give the Army a ‘rough time’... intending to upset its Open Air Meeting,’ he told the War Cry many years later (in pieces published in 1947 and 1948).

“Although I was a bit merry with drink, so soon as I arrived at the meeting, I was convicted of my sin and of my need for salvation. The power of God took hold of me, and I straightaway knelt down, seeking God’s mercy, which I found that night. Tom didn’t receive the same mercy from his 14 mates; his “old companions flung him into the trough after the gathering” – a baptism of sorts to test the strength of his new faith.

Tom states that it “is with pride that I claim the honour of being the colour sergeant who first carried the original Salvation Army flag in Australia in those lively marches of early day fighting”. (The story goes that the first act of Australia’s first Salvo officer, Captain Tom Sutherland, in February 1881, was to appoint a flag sergeant to carry and protect his flag.)

‘Early-day fighting’ is an exotic phrase. For Brother Benson, fighting as a Salvationist meant telling people about Jesus, helping them practically and fighting against the evils of cruelty, abuse, greed, fear and hatred. It was a different kind of combat than he was used to; Tom, a self-declared “thief, gambler and a drunkard at the age of 14”, had grown up with violence. He told of how he’d put his “drunken father out of the home” after he had “crippled my godly mother for life”.

It was not long after Tom’s release from gaol (he was sentenced “for knocking a policeman unconscious”) that he first heard Salvo pioneer (later Adjutant) John Gore talking about God in Adelaide’s Botanic Park.

On his way to becoming sober, a saint and a Salvo, Tom recalls attending a famous church meeting in South Australia’s capital, where it was “asked if anyone would like a word. John Gore, a milkman from England, stood up and spoke, and Mr Edward Saunders [afterwards a lieut-colonel], a builder [who was] also from the old country, shouted ‘Hallelujah! I’ll meet you outside’.”

Post that fateful meeting came the Army’s first unofficial meetings and Tom’s prayers and post-conversion dunking in the water trough. Tom thanked God he became “a soldier of The Salvation Army in June 1881 and later, as a plumber, worked on the Melbourne Training Garrison, having a workshop at the rear of the headquarters”.


Tom was still to be found serving under the Salvos’ flag as an 86-year-old ‘soldier’ in Queensland – collecting more than £60 for the 1947 Self Denial appeal.God knows you can’t keep an old battler down.


Girls on one side and boys on the other


At one time, Salvation Army officers could only marry Salvation Army officers, officer cadets had to ensure they had permission from training college staff to seek out a possible romantic relationship with another cadet or an officer, and people applying to be candidates for officership were sometimes grilled on their dating history and likely dating decisions.


Those scenarios may seem weird or even cult-like to young people and contemporary Salvos, and intrusively controlling in the light of now-existing understandings of privacy and inter-personal notions of dignity and respect, but in earlier times, the Army was big on avoiding the appearance of evil – perception, and PR – as well as trying to help people avoid any actual real wrongdoings or hurt feelings.


This even extended to Salvation Army architecture, with the ‘old Training College’ in the Melbourne CBD (pre-Royal Parade in Carlton) having a men’s staircase and a women’s staircase.


In the photo above, male cadets of the Hold Fast session are photographed in the ‘Women’s Side Quadrangle’. The men, we are told, were not ‘wife hunting’, and Commissioner Sumsion (seated) “agreed to be photographed with the group”, according to a report.


Settling matters in the Top End


Brigadier Vic Pedersen never forgot one experience during his time serving in the Top End.

They did things differently in Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1940s.


In the 1970s, the late Brigadier Vic Pedersen OF MBE recalled a boat trip out to a leprosarium that had been established on Channel Island near Darwin when a spear fight broke out between two of the lepers.


The Salvation Army officer, who was the Salvos’ first flying padre, told the War Cry:  “... the trouble began with one native breaking the tenth commandment and coveting his neighbour's wife. The eighth and seventh commandments then became casualties as he stole and possessed her. This was an insult that could not be ignored, and “Captain’, the wronged man, tried his best to break the sixth commandment and kill the offender. Others took sides, and in the battle, “Captain’ was hit in the back with a spear. We took him back with us that night to be admitted to Darwin Hospital. The other man was injured also, but his wounds could be treated on the island. In the launch, Captain was quite cheerful. Blood had been shed on both sides, and it seemed everyone was satisfied.”


Not sure how satisfied the unnamed wife was with all the palaver, as she was reduced to a disputed possession. It was certainly a case of different times and far different attitudes and responses.


bottom of page