Living with the Booths

Author recounts a three-year writing experience to detail a unique family

By John Larsson, General –

Three years ago I moved in with the Booths. And what a family I joined! William and Catherine brought into the world a happy, boisterous crew of eight originals—as gifted and headstrong as their parents—and their life together was quite extraordinary. As Harold Begbie, William Booth’s biographer, wrote, “outside the pages of Charles Dickens no such household ever existed, nor in any suburb of London has a more remarkable family ever been gathered under one roof.”

It would actually be more accurate to say that three years ago the Booths moved in with me. I surrounded myself in my small study with every book about the Booths we had in our home. It was a large collection, for on entering training at the age of 18 I had inherited all the Army books that my then-recently deceased grandfather, Commissioner Karl Larsson, had amassed. And to this treasure trove I myself have added extensively over the years.

The Booths also began to arrive in my study through online contact with the Army’s heritage centers around the world. No longer do researchers have to pack their bags and travel, as I was in frequent electronic contact not only with the International Heritage Centre at Demark Hill but also with the archival centers in Washington, Melbourne, Paris, Berne, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Buenos Aires.

Then came the task of sifting from this vast array of information all references to William and Catherine as parents. There have been many different biographical takes on the Booths over the years, but none specifically about them as parents, so in this I was treading new ground. As the children reached adulthood they began to play hugely significant roles in the expansion of the early Army across the continents, so here was another field to be explored. Of material there was no shortage. If anything, there was too much.

Parameters had therefore to be set. The book must not be too long, and most important of all, it had to be based on that excellent writers’ maxim: show, don’t tell. Stories and first person quotes are the gold nuggets that bring persons and situations to life. They are therefore sought as keenly by biographers as good illustrations are by preachers.

Such nuggets come in all shapes and sizes, allowing us a glimpse into moments in the lives of the parents and the four older children. For example, after playing a riotous game of Fox and Geese with his children, William Booth sat reading contentedly in an arm chair as 6-year-old daughter Emma amused herself by putting his long hair into curling papers. When his whole head was covered with little twists of paper, the maid announced a visitor. William Booth sprung to his feet and moved toward the hall. As the children dragged him back they screamed with laughter—laughter with which William joined when he looked in the mirror.

Now, with the publication of “Those Incredible Booths: William and Catherine Booth as parents and the life stories of their eight children” (Salvation Books, 2015), the source books have been returned to their usual shelves around our apartment. The screen no longer brings information about them from distant heritage centers.

I miss them. They have been good company for the last three years. Fortunately, they still are when I dip into my book. And it pleases me to think that with all the members of the family now gathered for the first time between two covers, others too will have the chance to meet those incredible Booths.

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