The colours of William Booth’s army were first carried to Belleville in September of 1883, a full 16 months after Canada’s first corps opened in London, Ontario; and 10 months after this first Officers Council was held in Toronto. Capt. Wass would have been one of the first Army officers to arrive in Belleville. Met by Rev. William Stacy, a Congregational Church minister, as he stepped from the train on Sept. 12, 1883, Capt. Wass inspected a number of available properties in search of one suitable to serve as barracks. Metropolitan Hall, formerly an opera house, which stood north of the four corners at Campbell St., was secured at a monthly rental of $13. There, on an upper floor, arrangements were made to “open fire” on the city of Belleville on Sept. 23, 1883.
Nellie Ryerson, 18-year-old daughter of a New Jersey preacher, converted to salvationism a mere 13 months earlier at the urging of Capt. Joe Ludgate, with probably not more than eight weeks preparation for officership, was appointed to take command of Belleville Corps with Lieutenant Emma Churchill.
First meetings were scheduled for 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. each preceded one-half hour earlier by open-air gatherings, probably at Market Square. Nightly meetings continued through the following week. Admission to the Hall was 10 cents. And, on the following Sunday a 7 a.m. knee-drill was added as an official meeting.
The Army was well received. A favourable press, popular officers, a population that regarded religion as stale and remote from the realities of everyday living, a number of supportive clergymen from other denominations, all aided in the early growth of the Army in Belleville.
Overcoming controversy about the architectural fitness of old Metropolitan Hall for public gatherings, the mischievous efforts of a few detractors, the opposition of old established churches, and, last but not least, the unfortunate death of a woman attending an early meeting who mistook an unguarded elevator shaft for a stair well, the Army counted over 100 soldiers on its rolls in the first six months here.
All Army meetings were well attended – the Army was known to put on a good show; for example, the Hallelujah Wedding of Capt. Ryerson to Army pioneer, Joe Ludgate. Ludgate had been a foundry worker in Belleville before moving to London, Ontario and meeting Jack Addie. He had been Nellie Ryerson’s spiritual mentor, and had filled in for Nellie at meetings when frequent flare-ups of a mysterious illness during her short stay here forced Capt. Ryerson to seek treatment at a New York hospital.
The Intelligencer of January 30, 1884 contained a lengthy account of that wedding, oddly enough held at Bridge St. Methodist Church (now Bridge St. United), since the Army of that day was recognized only as a movement, not a church, and officers were not ordained to perform legal marriages. Early friend of the Army, William Stacy, officiated. Over 1000 paid admissions witnessed the two-hour spectacle. Another 4000 outside cheered the blessed couple on their way to a reception at the new City Hall. And the Ludgates promptly farewelled to the U.S. territory (Joe later serving as chaplain to the United States Army), leaving Capt. Annie Hassen, for years credited with opening the work here, in command.
Hallelujah Weddings were common in the early days. In 1912, Belleville’s 57th commanding officer, Ensign William Hamilton, was also married in a ’10-cents-a-head’ wedding. The only reason to mention this wedding is to point out that 57 commanding officers, not counting assistant officers, in the first 29 years was not an unusual turnover or sign of instability among early Army leaders. Rather, it seems to have been a deliberate practice designed to keep interest and enthusiasm high, and was typical for the day. In fact, Belleville Corps changed officers four times a year in each of 1896, 1899 and 1902. Three officers a year was better than average. Few lasted an entire year; and only one ever served two stints here….
In 1886, during the tenure of Capt. William McIntyre, who later became Territorial Commander for the Central U.S., Belleville Corps moved into its first permanent barracks. A parcel of land, lot #28 on Pinnacle St., deeded to the Army from William Bleeker at a cost of $550, would be their home for the next 83 years…..At a cost estimated to be close to $3400, a barracks (the first of two to occupy the site) was erected. With a red and white brick front, a 30-ft circular ceiling in the centre, seating capacity for 400 salvationists, heated by 2 box coal stoves and lit by gas from a meter that consumed quarters, this hall was opened by a visiting entourage from the Territorial War Office in Kingston on May 24, 1886. In 1887, a well-liked officer by the name of Gideon Miller took command of the now 130 uniformed soldiers that made up Belleville Corps. He was assisted by Capt. Jettick, a colourful character reputed to have taken a cow with him to Officers’ Council in Toronto that year, a gift from a local patron to the Toronto Home of Rest. Capt. Jettick left Belleville Corps before his term here was up to tour North America with an all-star baseball team.
The external facade, as well as the interior of the barracks underwent a number of changes during the ensuing years until 1939 when, following a lengthy and at times contentious dispute with headquarters over what sums of money were retained in Belleville’ property account (Corps Treasurer, B. W. Brown, even threatening resignation if clarification was not forthcoming) the old building was demolished in July, 1939 to make way for a second barracks on the site. Local contractor and former songster leader Thomas Adams built the new hall and had it ready for opening on Dec. 9, 1939.
In the intervening months, services continued above a store on Front St. A fire under the band room in 1947 destroyed 14 instruments and scorched music that is still in use today. The building was eventually sold to the city in 1969 and continues to serve Bellevillians as the home of the local theatre guild. Cramped space, particularly for expanding Young People’s activities, dictated the move to property on Victoria Ave. under Capt. June Dwyer. Sod was turned in November of 1967. A song to commemorate the opening of the new hall in 1969 was composed by former Belleville bandsman, Gen. Arnold Brown. That building was sold in June, 1999.