Story: Salvation Army

Page 2. Social work

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Homes for prostitutes and prisoners

‘Go for souls, and look for the worst,’1 Salvation Army founder William Booth ordered his first followers. They responded by providing social services along with spiritual advice. In the Army’s first years in New Zealand, three rescue homes for prostitutes and unmarried mothers, and two ‘prison-gate’ homes for recently discharged prisoners, were set up. In the early 20th century, renamed men’s and women’s industrial homes, they provided accommodation in return for work such as sorting waste paper. Later they became night shelters and other forms of emergency accommodation.

Close quarters

David Robertson, the first sexton (gravedigger) at the Bolton Street cemetery in central Wellington, was an active member of the early Salvation Army. A tiny two-room cottage at the cemetery entrance (still tenanted in 2019) housed the Robertsons, including their 10 children. One daughter, Anne Rudman, became the first ‘soldier’ in the Wellington City Corps of the Salvation Army and spent her life working with prostitutes, the homeless and others in need. She insisted on wearing her uniform whenever she left her house.

Homes for boys and girls

The first Salvation Army home for girls opened in Newtown, Wellington, in 1903. The first boys’ home opened in Eltham, Taranaki, in 1909. Several more children’s homes followed. Most residents were orphans, although some had lost one parent, or their parents could not look after them.

Living conditions were harsh, and misbehaviour meant no dinner that night. ‘I hated every year I was there,’ said one former Eltham resident. ‘I used to look at the pillow shams [pillowslips] embossed with the words “God is Love” and think, “If you love us, why don’t you help us?”’2 As the government provided more social services, the homes were gradually closed or converted to homes for elderly people.

People’s Palaces

Between 1903 and 1912 the Salvation Army set up hotels in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to provide low-cost, liquor-free accommodation for travelling families. These People’s Palaces were run as commercial ventures, but staffed by Army officers who offered spiritual guidance on request. Between 1979 and 1994 all three were sold or closed.

Rotoroa Island

Abstinence from alcohol and tobacco was basic to Salvation Army beliefs. In 1909, at the government’s request, the Army set up a home for alcoholics on Rotoroa Island, just east of Waiheke Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Treatment was limited to abstinence and spiritual guidance, and many patients returned to drinking heavily as soon as they left the island. With increased medical understanding of alcoholism, Rotoroa changed its approach and patients voluntarily applied for treatment. In 2005 its treatment services were transferred to mainland Auckland and the island became a conservation park.

The era of social security

During the 1930s economic depression the Salvation Army provided meals and housing to needy people through relief centres and soup kitchens. Thousands of victims of the 1931 Napier earthquake were fed and housed for many months.

Legislation introduced in the late 1930s by the first Labour government reduced the need for the Army’s social services, and the church focused on homes for elderly people and special institutions such as hospitals for unmarried mothers. As the stigma of pregnancy outside marriage decreased, these became ordinary maternity hospitals and were later closed or sold. In 2011 the last Bethany home, in Auckland, was closed.

‘Give it to the Sallies’

The Salvation Army Family Stores, selling second-hand clothing, furniture and other goods, are a familiar sight in New Zealand towns. The first of these thrift shops opened at the Addington Men's Home, Christchurch, in 1964. Others were soon set up around the country. The sale of items donated to the stores supports the Army’s work and provides the public with low-cost goods.

New directions in social work

Treatment of alcoholics has been central to Salvation Army social programmes from their earliest days to the present. However, in the 21st century drug addiction and problem gambling were equally important. In the 2010s residential centres and clinics such as the Bridge Programme and Oasis Centre in Newtown, Wellington, provided professional counselling and treatment services for alcohol and drug addiction and problem gambling. A 2016 study found that the Bridge programme’s recovery rates were equivalent to the most successful programmes worldwide. A nationwide network of more than 70 community ministries continues to provide foodbanks, budgeting advice, crisis counselling, advocacy and other services, though all Salvation Army churches offer at least some of these services.

  1. Quoted in Cyril R. Bradwell, Fight the good fight: the story of the Salvation Army in New Zealand, 1883–1983. Wellington: Reed, 1982, p. 131. Back
  2. Quoted in Alison Robinson, The Salvation Army in Stratford & Eltham, 1893–1993: including the Mercy Boys’ Home & the Mercy Jenkins Eventide Home. Stratford: Salvation Army, Stratford/Eltham Corps, 1993, p. 72. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Salvation Army - Social work', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2018