Catherine Booth, the daughter of a coachbuilder, was born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, on 17th January 1829. When she was a child the family moved to Boston, Lincolnshire and later they lived in Brixton, London. Catherine was a devout Christian and by the age of twelve she had read the Bible eight times. She had a social conscience from an early age. On one occasion she protested to the local policeman that he had been too rough on a drunken man he had arrested and frog-marched to the local lock-up.
Catherine did not enjoy good health. At the age of fourteen she developed spinal curvature and four years later, incipient tuberculosis. It was while she was ill in bed that she began writing articles for magazines warning of the dangers of drinking alcohol. Catherine was a member of the local Band of Hope and a supporter of the national Temperance Society.
In 1852 Catherine met William Booth, a Methodist minister. William had strong views on the role of church ministers believing they should be "loosing the chains of injustice, freeing the captive and oppressed, sharing food and home, clothing the naked, and carrying out family responsibilities." Catherine shared William's commitment to social reform but disagreed with his views on women. Catherine was an avowed feminist. On one occasion she objected to William describing women as the "weaker sex". William was also opposed to the idea of women preachers. When Catherine argued with William about this he added that although he would not stop Catherine from preaching he would "not like it". Despite their disagreements about the role of women in the church, the couple married on 16th June 1855, at Stockwell New Chapel.
It was not until 1860 that Catherine Booth first started to preach. One day in Gateshead Bethesda Chapel, a strange compulsion seized her and she felt she must rise and speak. Later she recalled how an inner voice taunted her: "You will look like a fool and have nothing to say". Catherine decided that this was the Devil's voice: "That's just the point," she retorted, "I have never yet been willing to be a fool for Christ. Now I will be one."
Catherine's sermon was so impressive that William changed his mind about women's preachers. Catherine Booth soon developed a reputation as an outstanding speaker but many Christians were outraged by the idea. As Catherine pointed out at that time it was believed that a woman's place was in the home and "any respectable woman who raised her voice in public risked grave censure."
In 1864 the couple began in London's East End the Christian Mission which later developed into the Salvation Army. Catherine Booth took a leading role in these revival services and could often be seen preaching in the dockland parishes of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. Though often imprisoned for preaching in the open air, members of the Salvation Army fought on, waging war on poverty and injustice.
The Church of England were at first extremely hostile to the Salvation Army. Lord Shaftesbury, a leading politician and evangelist, described William Booth as the "anti-christ". One of the main complaints against Booth was his "elevation of women to man's status". In the Salvation Army a woman officer enjoyed equal rights with a man. Although Booth had initially rejected the idea of women preachers, he had now completely changed his mind and wrote that "the best men in my Army are the women."
Catherine Booth began to organize what became known as Food-for-the-Million Shops where the poor could buy hot soup and a three-course dinner for sixpence. On special occasions such as Christmas Day, she would cook over 300 dinners to be distributed to the poor of London.
By 1882 a survey of London discovered that on one weeknight, there were almost 17,000 worshipping with the Salvation Army, compared to 11,000 in ordinary churches. Even, Dr. William Thornton, the Archbishop of York, had to accept that the Salvation Army was reaching people that the Church of England had failed to have any impact on.
It was while working with the poor in London that Catherine found out about what was known as "sweated labour". That is, women and children working long hours for low wages in very poor conditions. In the tenements of London, Catherine discovered red-eyed women hemming and stitching for eleven hours a day. These women were only paid 9d. a day, whereas men doing the same work in a factory were receiving over 3s. 6d. Catherine and fellow members of the Salvation Army attempted to shame employers into paying better wages. They also attempted to improve the working conditions of these women.
Catherine was particularly concerned about women making matches. Not only were these women only earning 1s. 4d. for a sixteen hour day, they were also risking their health when they dipped their match-heads in the yellow phosphorus supplied by manufacturers such as Bryant & May. A large number of these women suffered from 'Phossy Jaw' (necrosis of the bone) caused by the toxic fumes of the yellow phosphorus. The whole side of the face turned green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death.
Women like Catherine Booth and Annie Beasant led a campaign against the use of yellow phosphorus. They pointed out that most other European countries produced matches tipped with harmless red phosphorus. Bryant & May responded that these matches were more expensive and that people would be unwilling to pay these higher prices.
Catherine Booth died of cancer on 4th October 1890. The campaigns that were started by Catherine were not abandoned. William Booth decided he would force companies to abandon the use of yellow phosphorus. In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match-factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using harmless red phosphorus, the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. Whereas Bryant & May paid their workers just over twopence a gross, the Salvation Army paid their employees twice this amount.
William Booth organised conducted tours of MPs and journalists round this 'model' factory. He also took them to the homes of those "sweated workers" who were working eleven and twelve hours a day producing matches for companies like Bryant & May. The bad publicity that the company received forced the company to reconsider its actions. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced it had stopped used yellow phosphorus.
Catherine Booth and William Booth had eight children, all of whom were active in the Salvation Army. William Bramwell Booth (1856-1929) was chief of staff from 1880 and succeeded his father as general in 1912. Catherine's second son, Ballington Booth (1857-1940), was commander of the army in Australia (1883-1885) and the USA (1887-1896). One of her daughters, Evangeline Cory Booth (1865-1950) was elected General of the Salvation Army in 1934.