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Michele A-Court's family link to the Salvation Army

Left: Michele A’Court’s great-grandparents, John and Edith Rogers, in their Salvation Army uniforms (circa 1920). Right: A’Court and brother Stephen with their mother, Donna A’Court, and staunch Sallies great-grandma Edith in Napier, 1963.

Michele A’Court finds the spirit of the Sallies has been passed down her family tree.

There is a photograph of my great-grandmother Edith in her Salvation Army bonnet. When I was very little, I thought all old ladies wore hats like that – a style of the time, rather than a symbol of belief.

But I have also always known about the Sallies, and that this is where my family comes from. Stroppy women, mainly: a great-great-possibly-great-aunt Sarah, in demand at meetings far and wide for her fire-and-brimstone sermons back in England; my great-grandparents, Edith and John Rogers, sent to New Zealand from Oldham more than 100 years ago to help bolster the Salvation Army here.

John came first – a soldier’s reconnoitre – before Edith and their three children joined him. They left England in 1913 and arrived in 1914, a long journey taken on faith. There’s a photograph of them just before they left: my great-grandma standing, “our Harold” and “our Ruth” on either side, my grandmother sitting in the middle. She was another Edith, and my mother and I both carry that as a middle name. My daughter has been given “Ruth”.

Not long after they arrived, my great-grandfather was crippled in a workplace accident in Otahuhu. Great-grandma kept body and soul together by taking in washing. So they were always poor, but they'd hold prayer meetings in their home for the whole neighbourhood – first in Otahuhu, then Miramar, then Napier. They invited people who they knew were hungry. There would be Bible readings and soup or stew.

My mother and I talk about this now – that for them, the Salvation Army was as much about social justice as it was about religion. I never met Great-grandpa but I know he was quite fond of waving his hand about at election time and saying, “See this hand? I’d rather cut it off than vote Tory!” Big call for a man who could barely walk. I think of it now as his own personal version of the Salvation Army salute.

The Wellington City Salvation Army band in the 1920s. John and Edith’s son, Harold Rogers, is in the middle row, fifth from left.

I don’t know if I remember Great-grandma or if I just remember her from the photos of us together on the steps of her little flat. My big brother recalls her vividly – very old and blind and small, but still deferred to by everyone in the family. She lived until she was 93.

Their children were all raised in the Salvation Army. As a young woman, my grandmother sang solo at corps meetings and delivered the War Cry to men in pubs. She left school at 13 to work at the Wellington headquarters as private secretary to Colonel Walls, until she married a Sally, an artist and musician who scored the music for the local church band. Grandma left the Sallies in the 1950s – pushed out, really, because she divorced her husband for serial infidelity. The Salvation Army did not approve of the infidelity, but nor did they approve of the divorce. She went to other churches, but her best stories were about the Sallies. I might have been raised on Anglican hymns but I was just as familiar with “Onward Christian Soldiers” and that unanswerable question, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?”

Once, when I was maybe 10, Grandma took me on a trip to Wellington and we stayed at the People’s Palace on Cuba St, a liquor-free hotel and boarding house run by the Sallies for almost 80 years as a shelter and as cheap accommodation for working-class travellers. Shared bathroom down the hall, hand basin beside the bed. I’d never seen a bedroom with a hand basin in it and thought it was a terrific idea. It was also the first time I’d ever seen my grandmother without her teeth.

The people who ran the place all seemed to know who my grandmother was. I felt like I was travelling with someone famous. In her later years, Grandma would make more trips to Wellington for meetings at the Citadel – a sort of coming home for her, I think.

And here’s a thing. Every year at Christmas, the Sallies would park their truck outside our house in Levin, knowing Grandma was there with us, and belt out Christmas hymns. When I was little, I thought they parked outside everyone’s house to play. It wasn’t till much later that I understood they were specifically playing for Grandma. A kind of apology, or something. Maybe just letting her know they still thought of her as a soldier.

So I wasn’t raised Sally, but things stick. My mother inherited that sense of social justice and passed it on. I thought of my great-grandfather and the hand he’d rather cut off than vote Tory when I MC’d the Labour Party election-campaign launch in August, and how much my great-grandmother would have approved of Jacinda Ardern’s message of hope. And I am beyond thrilled that The Aunties, the charity I work with, has just formed a relationship with the Salvation Army in South Auckland to support people in their emergency housing. I am not a religious person, but something works in mysterious ways.     

This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.