This post was written by Flore Janssen, Digital Humanities Project Officer at The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre

The opening lines of the novel In Darkest London (1891; first published as Captain Lobe in 1889) read:

… just two years ago, a little man, with closely cropped hair and slight, neat figure, might have been seen walking quickly along the Whitechapel Road towards the London Hospital. His hands were in the pockets of a short jacket; and on his collar shone S, which proclaimed him to be a member of the Salvation Army.

This is the reader’s introduction to Captain Lobe, a young Salvation Army officer stationed in the part of east London where the organisation began its work as the East London Christian Mission in 1865. It is typical that Lobe first appears on his way somewhere: the novel follows him on his rounds, giving the reader a tour of his organisation’s work to help people in poverty in London. In his introduction to the novel, William Booth, founder and first General of The Salvation Army, expressed his hope that the novel would prove that ‘… to know the Army, is, at least to admire it, perhaps also to sympathise with its work, and desire to help it’.

Cover of In Darkest London (1893) featuring a portrait of ‘Captain Lobe’. British Library.

In Darkest London was the third novel of the writer and activist Margaret Harkness (who generally wrote under the pseudonym ‘John Law’), an important figure in my PhD thesis and subsequent postdoctoral research. My research first led me to the archives at The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre to discover how accurate the representations of the organisation in Harkness’s novels were; but I unexpectedly also found out about the real Salvation Army officer who was Harkness’s model for Captain Lobe: David Leib (1862–1932).

Portrait of David Leib c. 1889. War Cry, 10 August 1889.

The International Heritage Centre often hold detailed records of Salvation Army officers, and this has made it possible to trace David Leib’s career. He distinguished himself as an officer both in the UK and abroad and therefore regularly crops up in The Salvation Army’s extensive periodical press. These sources made it possible to establish when he and Harkness met and explain why his fictional alter ego, Captain Lobe, appears in her first novel, A City Girl (1887). He and his work appear to have impressed Harkness so much that she went on to make Lobe the protagonist of his own novel when Leib had already moved away from Whitechapel (Salvation Army officers’ appointments in the 1880s tended to last only six months).

While Leib (as Lobe), through Harkness, introduced a broad readership to the work of The Salvation Army, therefore, Harkness and Lobe were the means of introducing me to the diverse history of The Salvation Army through the rich collections at the International Heritage Centre. As the Heritage Centre’s Digital Humanities Project Officer I am now working to do the same for other researchers.