History of Salvos court and prison ministry

6 October 2022

History of Salvos court and prison ministry

When General William Booth, co-founder of The Salvation Army, in his famous ‘I’ll fight’ speech in London, said, “While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight” – Salvos in Australia were already doing it.

A prison ministry had commenced in Melbourne in 1883, almost three decades earlier. And by 1912, when General Booth died – Salvos prison ministry had spread to major cities and regional centres across Australia. In the beginning, the program was called Prison Gate Brigade, and the Melbourne initiative was the first prison ministry of its type conducted by The Salvation Army anywhere in the world.

Humble beginnings

“‘Do give me a chance, sir. I don’t want to die in jail’, pleaded the man called Taylor, standing cowered and dishevelled in the small office at 52 Bourke Street in Melbourne.

The humble plea deeply moved Major James Barker, the most senior officer of The Salvation Army in Australia at the time, and his chief of staff, the Reverend John Horsley.

Taylor wept as he recounted spending 40 of his 60 years in jail and his recent release from the Melbourne Gaol without any support or chance of attaining work.

The two Salvos listening to Taylor soon contacted an acquaintance named John Hendy and Dr John Singleton, a prominent philanthropist who went on to become an important supporter of The Salvation Army’s work. Dr Singleton and John Hendy had free access to the Melbourne Gaol, meaning they could visit prisoners whenever they wanted.

The following Saturday, Major Barker and John Hendy were in the yard of the Melbourne Gaol when the Major’s uniform aroused curiosity among prisoners and wardens alike.

“We had not been there long before two gaol birds came up to us and, respectfully touching their hats, one said to the Major, ‘I believe you help people in trouble’, recounted Hendy. The men said they would be discharged in a fortnight and asked if the Major could help.,

‘Yes, come and see me at The Salvation Army headquarters,” replied Major Barker immediately.

With John Hendy’s support and Dr John Singleton’s recommendation to the prison authorities, The Salvation Army gained permission to hold meetings in the Melbourne Gaol and privately interview any prisoner who desired it.

Meanwhile, Captain William Shepherd, once a prisoner himself but now an officer at inner Melbourne’s Little Bourke St Corps, was already doing something similar. The captain and Mrs Shepherd often took newly released male prisoners into their home at 51 Lygon St, Carlton, an inner-city suburb in Melbourne.

Elsewhere, another lady, Mrs McAlister, was also caring for women released from the Melbourne Gaol at her own home at 11 Barkly Street in Carlton.

The first Prison Gate Brigade Home was located at 37 Argyle Place South in Carlton and received both men and women. Captain Shepherd was appointed to oversee the project.

The Salvation Army’s purpose behind Prison Gate Brigade – every man or woman who came out of Melbourne Gaol would have a kind man to meet them and have the offer of such help as they may need to make a better life.
TSA Gaol chaplain - John Irwin
TSA Gaol chaplain – John Irwin

From small things, big things grow

The starting of Prison Gate was a historic moment for The Salvation Army in Australia. Soon after, Captain and Mrs Shepherd were appointed to operate a Fallen Sisters Home – a refuge for women recently released from prison -in Fitzroy, with particular emphasis on Prison Gate Brigade work with women.

So impressive was the new prison program that the long-established Discharged Prisoners Society referred its ‘hopeless cases’ to The Salvation Army.

Official Salvos records state that the Victorian Government was so impressed with Major Barker’s services that they appointed him an honorary magistrate and special police constable.

Prison ministry today

Prison chaplaincy remains an important part of the suite of services and programs currently offered by The Salvation Army in Australia, with officers and soldiers appointed as official chaplains to major metro, regional and country gaols and remand centres, as well as support in the court system through local Salvos corps.

Assistance provided includes personal prisoner visits, chapel services, Bible studies, Positive Lifestyle Programs, spiritual counselling and support (before and after release) to prisoners and their families.

Visit our prison services page to learn more about the services we offer.

This article has been adapted from Court and Prison Ministry (150 Years of The Salvation Army worldwide) by Bill Simpson and Dean Simpson.

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