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The Massagainians

by Bob Applin

The Basingstoke Massagainian were a 19th century mob encouraged by Basingstoke brewers, particularly the Adams Brothers of the Victoria Brewery, who attempted to stop the activities of the Salvation Army which had decided that the inhabitants of  Basingstoke were in need of salvation. Basingstoke at that time had a large brewing industry and many people’s livelihood, not just the publicans, depended on it. The most accessible account of the Massagainians and the Basingstoke riots which they instigated between 1880 and 1883 is in Arthur Attwood’s Illustrated History of Basingstoke.[now superseded by The Basingstoke riots; Massagainians v Salvation Army, 1880-1883, by Bob Clarke (Basingstoke Archaeological and Historical Society, 2010) ] He quotes extensively from the diaries of George Woodman, copies of which are held in the Willis Museum. An account from the Salvation Army viewpoint, largely taken from Warcry of the time but also quoting Woodman and Baigent and Millard, is in Ken Clements’ Two Feeble Women, an account of the early history of the Salvation Army in Basingstoke.

A very condensed version of Arthur’s chapter on riots and disturbances will give the bones of the story. The comments in square brackets [ ] and in Arial font are mine not Arthur’s or any of the people he quotes.

Basingstoke had a reputation for drunkenness, a population of 6,681 was served by 50 public houses. In 1880 General Booth sent a team of two officers, the “two feeble women”, of the Salvation Army to preach temperance. They established a base in the old silk mill in Brook Street. The Salvation Army had the backing of a number of leading townspeople and the churches, particularly the London Street Congregational Church. [At this period and for several decades more, “leading townspeople” and members of the Congregational Church were the same people. Many of the traders and businessmen were members of the Congregational Church and the town council.]  Opposing them was a group known as the Massagainians, supported and egged on by the brewers. After a large stone had been thrown through the window of the offices of the Gazette, which had published articles supporting the Salvation Army, the man responsible was rewarded with a gallon of ale. Much ill feeling simmered and many incidents occurred during December 1880. Many were shocked by the mob violence, often drink-fuelled. There were assaults and ducking in the canal and Captain Jordan of the Salvation Army narrowly escaped drowning in the Loddon.

On Sunday 20 March 1881, 200 or so of the roughest characters in the town assembled to harass the Salvation Army, with numbers increasing to about 1,000. At the same time, many respectable people went out and headed the Salvation Army and protected them on either side. Windows were smashed in Church Street. In the afternoon the mob broke the Salvation Army ranks. The Police [Town Police not County Constabulary] and the Mayor – W. B. Blatch, a brewer, stood by and did nothing. Among the leaders were the Adams brothers.

Superintendent Hibberd, head of the police force of 5 constables, realised he needed reinforcements and applied to the mayor for a body of special constables – 100 from all walks of life were recruited. On the morning of 27th March the Salvation Army paraded, with the police escort. After the morning parade some of the special constables returned to the Town Hall, stating that they would not protect such a set of ‘damned hypocrites’. In the afternoon the Mayor stopped the Salvation Army leaving the Silk Mill, as he was afraid of the mob – at least 3,000 in Brook Street and Church Street. [3,000 in population of 6,681 so + outsiders?] The Riot Act was read from the Town Hall and the Royal Horse Artillery, who were spending the weekend in Basingstoke, were ordered to clear the streets. [Just coincidence they happened to be there? Regular visit? Arthur does not mention it, but Ken Clements’ account refers to up to 30 County Police from Winchester being present on some Sundays. They were more vigorous in keeping order.]

On August 30th, 20 people appeared before the magistrates, charged with assault and obstruction. A number of Massagainians had assembled outside the court, shouting, beating drums, waving rattles. After the court one of the magistrates was severely harassed. Ten rioters were jailed.

Arthur quotes Woodman. On 21st September 1881 he wrote:

‘Return of the Massagainians from Winchester Jail. They were fetched home in carriages with postillions. They had a band of hundreds of people to welcome them home, with flags flying and strings of flags across Winchester Street. Dinner was held for them in the Corn Exchange and each received a silver watch. The Corn Exchange was crammed full and the noise they kicked up was awful.’

There was an election on 1st November 1881. Arthur  quotes Woodman again:

‘Municipal Election. A fiercely contested one, the first time it had been fought politically, Tory against Liberals, Churchmen against dissenters, temperance against drink, Massagainians against the Salvation Army. The Massagainians gained the day.

A mob of about 200 went to London Street to annoy then went down Church Street and smashed the windows of the Gazette office and others – including the Congregational Minister’s house.’

200 Salvationists were holding a meeting in the Silk Mill. The mob tried to break the door, smashed all the windows and attacked the roof.

They then went to South View  and tried to break into Mr Soper’s house [Hillside in Vyne Road, often known as Soper’s Castle because of the crenellations] and set fire to it, unsuccessfully. Every window was smashed.ob tried to break the door, smashed all the windows and attacked the roof.

On 5th March 1882 there was further rioting. The Police Superintendent assured the magistrates that his five men could quell any riot that might occur. Arthur records that Woodman’s later entries showed that from that date the ill feeling and disturbances gradually died down.

However, Ken Clements records the Warcry reporting incidents for several more years.

What is not clear from these accounts and that in Baigent & Millard’s ‘History of Basingstoke’ is whether this was a purely local reaction to the Salvation Army or part of a larger disturbance. Certainly questions were asked in Parliament on several occasions about the Basingstoke riots. Also the largest brewer, May, appears to have kept a low profile, did he finance the dinner and silver watches? Robert Brown recalls interviewing in the 1960s a very elderly man who was a youth at the time, employed by May’s brewery. He stated that there was definite support by May. Ken Clements quotes Warcry  of 9th March 1892 “Unfortunately during that year the Mayor was a publican, owning three quarters of the public houses in the town, and who throughout, has winked at rowdyism” . Baigent and Millard list the Mayors at the time as 1880/81 WH Blatch, (he was May’s Brewery manager), 1881/2 JW Lodwidge, 1882/3 FJ Temple, 1883/4 John May.

The origin of the name Massagainians adopted by the pro-drink group is obscure; it is not in the Oxford English Dictionary. Ken Clements writes “Meanwhile a leaflet was in circulation on the streets of the town calling on the roughs to ` Mass Again against the Salvation Army`, and so this new opposing element became known as the Massagainians”

The crowd sizes quoted in the various accounts seem to be excessive – 2000 in the Market Square (1000 would be a crush), 3000 in Brook St! I think these are exaggerated for effect, particularly in the Warcry. Some of Woodman’s account seems to follow Warcry quite closely.

An interesting sidelight on the thinking of some at the time is in Baigent & Millard’s account. Canon Millard was Rector of St Michael’s at the time. Their section on the riots, while factual and generally not anti Salvation army finishes up:

The stimulating and exciting religious exercises at meetings in the “barracks” generally prolonged to a late hour, and sometimes announced as an “All Night with Jesus” are apt to not only trench[sic] upon the reverence due to holy names and things, but also to exert a dangerous influence, mentally, morally and even physically, upon the audience. Several very serious cases of mania, followed by attempted suicide, have been ascribed to this influence by competent medical authority. It is to be hoped, however, that repression by force will never again be attempted. The familiar and oft quoted counsel of Gamaliel (Acts v, 38-9) is peculiarly applicable to the Salvation Army.

[The quotation is: “And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone, for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it: lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”]

My brief foray into one of the Town’s less reputable incidents has raised questions  such as, how accurate were the reports in the local and national press? How much was John May involved? Did the reports prompt Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1887 reference to Basingstoke in Ruddigore?

My thanks for their help in preparing this article are due to Ernie Major (then at the Willis Museum) and to Robert Brown.

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