PLSG’s second presentation from Fran Bulwer on 12th February was the life and work of Ada Salter (1866-1942). Her achievements as Bermondsey’s own ‘ethical socialist’ campaigner, councillor, Mayor and London County Council (L.C.C.) member have recently been reassessed in a book by Graham Taylor after being considered slightly secondary to those of her equally remarkable G.P. and M.P. husband, Dr Alfred Salter (1873-1945).
Ada Salter grew up in a prosperous Northamptonshire Methodist family and was encouraged through her family and education to be active in the community. She came to London to work in the West London Mission, where she worked among the poorest and most vulnerable girls and women in central London, before moving to the Bermondsey Settlement in 1897 to set up girls’ clubs, with great success. Here she met a young doctor, Alfred Salter, whom she married in 1900. As a couple they devoted the rest of their lives for over 40 years to improving the lives of the people of Bermondsey through their positions on the borough council, as Mayor and member of the L.C.C. and through a cooperative GP surgery and as M.P. for West Bermondsey.
The death of their only child Joyce of scarlet fever, aged 8 in 1910, was a terrible blow and test of their Christian faith.
Ada’s achievements were hard won and remarkable. She campaigned through the Women’s Labour League for trade union representation for women workers in local industries, notably the jam factories, supporting their children and families during different strikes, keen to improve not only their working conditions and pay, but also to provide support for their children and families with child and healthcare and to improve the environment in which they lived and their housing. She was also a committed suffragist.
Ada Salter opening a playground and planting a tree. Source: Wikipedia
Ada’s ‘beautification’ of Bermondsey – the planting of trees along 70 miles of streets, beautiful flower beds in every available open space and encouraging local people to plant their own window boxes and hanging baskets became famous nationally. Apart from this, she pushed for an ambitious slum-clearance programme for Bermondsey whose greatest success was the 53 houses of Wilson Grove, a mini-garden city next to the docks, still there today. Money restrictions in the 1930s limited further such developments but housing improvements made by the Council were significant with Wilson Grove becoming a much-admired model nationally and beyond.
With Alfred’s medical position and Ada’s organizational skills, health was also a high priority in an area with many problems. Clinics to combat tuberculosis (T.B.), including a revolutionary solarium for T.B. sufferers, sanatorium and convalescent facilities out at Fairby Grange in Kent, ante-natal, neo-natal and child health clinics resulted in dramatic improvements in the health of the local people. They were also responsible for building Britain’s first integrated health clinic in Grange Road, still an NHS health centre today. Nearby public baths also provided state of the art washing, bathing, swimming and laundry facilities while a fleet of ‘cinemotors’ went round Bermondsey to give slide and film shows about cleanliness and good health. 16 of these locally made films have survived and are at the Wellcome Foundation, a reminder of how seriously the Salters and their team considered public education to be.
As life-long pacifists, Ada and Alfred campaigned hard against the First World War and were devastated by the outbreak of the Second World War, which they had fought equally hard to prevent. Bermondsey was particularly badly hit by German air-raids on the docks and all Ada’s beautification projects soon lay in ruins, while her home in Storks Rd was also badly damaged by a bomb. She died in 1942 and Alfred in 1945.
A group of statues on the riverside near Ada’s fist Bermondsey flat was completed in 2014 by adding Ada holding a spade and flowers to that of her husband, daughter Joyce and their cat. It is a tribute to a couple who worked tirelessly for Bermondsey and whose achievements prefigured the NHS and Green movement.
The statues of the Salter family and their cat, entitled “Alfred Salter’s Dream.” Located on Bermondsey Wall East, overlooking the Thames. Photograph by Andrea Byrnes