After ‘opening fire’ on colliers with resounding success in the Twenties, Sherburn’s Sally Army is still going strong.

THOUGH they were truly extraordinary, though they were utterly to change lives, the events in Sherburn Hill of Saturday, May 20, 1922 went unrecorded in the following Monday’s Northern Echo. It was hardly surprising.

Who’d have thought it, after all, least of all the hard-hewn folk who lived on Sherburn Hill or the two Salvation Army officers, young and female, sent against all the odds to teach them the error of their ways.

Sherburn Hill was a colliery community a few miles east of Durham.

“As is generally known,” observed a Salvation Army publication two years later, “a bad miner is a bad man indeed”.

The Echo had instead carried the headline “A good year for fruit.”

None, least of all Captain Ethel Twine and Lieutenant Dorothea Carr, may ever have imagined that Sherburn Hill would produce so great a harvest.

The task of converting the colliers had so alarmed the young officers, indeed, that they begged the divisional commander – there’s a biblical precedent – to be spared the great test.

The CO insisted. The Army talked of “invasion” and, keen to maintain the military metaphor, announced that the first shots would be fired outside the Co-op at 6.30 that seldomsober Saturday evening.

Unlike the great Salvationist hymn, however, it may not have been supposed that the Church of God moved like a mighty army. When the time came for the march into Sherburn Hill, the officers were joined by just four others.

Almost always they were open-air operations. Though the officers were billeted with ecumenically minded Methodists, the Army itself had no quarters and was to meet in the village picture hall (which in those days, of course, resolutely stayed silent on the Sabbath).

Within two years, Sherburn Hill Salvation Army corps had 226 soldiers and almost as many youngsters.

A 1924 article in The Bandsman, Local Officer and Songster – War Cry’s snappier – recorded that the band had 21 members, only three of whom had been able to play a note 12 months earlier.

“With but few exceptions all the bandsmen had been disreputable local characters,” it added.

Kell, the bandmaster, had been a “backslider and heavy gambler”

who, two weeks before his conversion, had backed 24 winners and lost the lot by Sunday. Brother Craggs had been a “heavy drinker, gambler, swearer and poacher” – What, he didn’t bother with baccy? – who played in a ragtime band while wearing a card on his back proclaiming him Nobody’s Lad.

“Today, thank God,” added the article, “he realises he is the son of a king.”

Bandsman Adamson had earned up to £3 a week as a bookies’ runner, Bandsmen Stephen and Watson had pocketed “many a shilling” by singing round the public houses, Bandsmen Raine and Law had been slaves to strong drink and tobacco.

“The quantity they used to consume every week would greatly surprise the uninitiated,” the article added.

The Army continued its advance.

They formed Guards and Sunbeams, Singing Companies and Mandolin Bands, all quirkily, perkily uniformed and with the clear order that smiling was akin to swearing.

Captain Twine later married Major John Adamson who told the tale in another memoir for an Army newspaper.

“Often we recall those days,” he wrote, “when the devil was routed in Sherburn Hill.”

FORMER glories, however inspiring, leave very many fewer column inches than normal for what might be termed active service.

A few years after battle commenced they were given a hut, appropriately, by the Salvation Army at Catterick and built foundations themselves.

Though the pit closed in 1965, though the Hill may sometimes have seemed pretty vertiginous, the Army now meets in a 1980s building that’s a base for almost daily activity.

“It’s probably unique to have a church this size in a place like Sherburn Hill. They’re very positive and work extremely hard,” admits Captain Russell Tucker, commanding officer with his wife, Captain Ann Tucker.

Notice boards detail everything from the corps retreat – they don’t retreat for long – to the creche rota to Sally’s Songs, a Friday morning music group for toddlers. Sally’s a puppet.

The Home League, it’s recorded, is working on a sponsored scarf, presently 54m long.

“That’s 54 metres, not yards, mind,” someone says.

“It’s nearly 54-and-a-half-now,”

says her friend.

Familiar all over County Durham, the band opens proceedings with Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.

Other songs are accompanied by Jean Carman, pianist for 60 years.

Words are displayed on a screen.

Since they’re from three different hymn books, this may be a laboursaving device.

Russell uses his six-year-old son, Joshua, in his address, produces a bag full of foods considered either healthy or unhealthy, talks of a healthy spiritual life and of the need for Christians to eat their spiritual peas.

Joshua’s rewarded with a Mars Bar and an apple. “A balanced diet,”

says his dad.

A lively service ends after 70 minutes, chance thereafter to talk with Sarah Parkin, a Durham University student who’s been coming to Sherburn Hill for two-and-a-half years. “I just love it here, it’s amazing how much goes on,” she says.

“It’s still very traditional and the people are lovely. They do everything they can to make you feel welcome.”

It includes a Sunday lunch rota for Sarah and her student friends. “Ah,”

she says, “the Yorkshire puddings...”

The hospitality continues back at Jean and Chris Carman’s in Sherburn Village, coffee and Blue Ribands and pocketfuls of Murray Mints with which homeward to chew over the morning’s events.

It’s Chris who’s the corps historian, who recall his own youth in the 1940s when Sherburn Hill miners would still hand over just part of their wage packet, the rest earmarked for drinking and gambling.

Numbers are smaller now, of course, maybe 50 last Sunday morning, but still up for the fight, nonetheless.

They’re smashing folk. The Army, happily, marches on.

* Sherburn Hill Salvation Army has Sunday meetings at 9.45am and 6pm. Tomorrow morning’s meeting is led by Lieutenant Colonel Barbara Tucker – Russell’s mum.