Turbulent Londoners: Ada Salter, 1866-1942

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Ada Salter, a social reformer, environmentalist, and pacifist, who became the first female mayor in London.

A statue of Ada Salter in Rotherhithe, London. It is by artist Diane Gorvin (Source: Loz Pycock).

Ada Salter was a strong-willed and radical woman, who dedicated her life to the people of Bermondsey. Originally moving there as a charity worker, she became a local councillor and eventually mayor, the first in London (Daisy Parsons became Mayor of West Ham in 1936, 14 years after Ada). Born Ada Brown on the 20th of July 1866 in Raunds, Northamptonshire, Ada was an active Methodist and member of the radical wing of the Liberal Party from an early age. In 1896, aged 30, she moved to London to work as a ‘Sister of the People’ in the St. Pancras slums. The following year she moved to the Bermondsey Settlement, and joined the community which she would spend the rest of her life fighting for.

The Settlement movement started in the 1880s, and encouraged the rich and poor to live closely together in interdependent communities. Volunteers lived in the Settlements and shared knowledge and culture with their low income neighbours, as well as alleviating poverty. The Bermondsey Settlement was founded in 1892, and stayed open until 1967. Ada worked with young women, and was admired for her ability to get through to them. Whilst at the Settlement Ada met Dr. Alfred Salter, whom she persuaded to convert to Christianity and join the Liberal Party (he was previously a socialist). They were married on the 22nd of August 1900.

After the Salters’ marriage Ada wanted to stay in Bermondsey, so Alfred set up a GP practice in Jamaica Road, whilst Ada continued to work at the Settlement. In 1902 the couples’ only child, Ada Joyce, was born. Four years later Ada left the Liberal Party because they reneged on their promise to grant women the vote. She joined the International Labour Party (ILP) and co-founded the Women’s Labour League (WLL). The ILP was the best party in regards to womens’ rights, and they wanted to stand female candidates at the next local council elections, including Ada. As a Liberal Councillor for the London County Council, Ada’s move must have put her husband in an awkward position. He supported her, however, and eventually joined her, founding a Bermonsdey branch of the ILP in 1908.

In November 1909, Ada was elected the first female and first Labour councillor in Bermondsey. Tragedy struck the following year when Ada Joyce was killed by scarlet fever in one the periodic epidemics that swept through the overcrowded community. The Salters’ had made the conscious decision not to send their daughter away from Bermondsey to protect her health. Joyce attended the local Keeton’s Road School, and caught scarlet fever 3 times in her 8-year life. It was an admirable decision to keep their entire family within Bermondsey, but the guilt after Joyce’s death must have been overwhelming.

Devastated, Ada threw herself into her political and charity work. She started to recruit local female factory workers into the National Federation of Women Workers. At first there was little response, but in August 1911, 14000 women struck for, and won, better working conditions. Ada was hailed as the inspiration of the ‘Bermondsey Uprising,’ although in fact she was only one contributing factor. She continued to support worker’s disputes, setting up food relief points during strikes. Ada became National Treasurer of the WLL, and President in 1914. The WLL wasn’t affiliated to any specific suffrage movement, but Ada supported the non-violent Women’s Freedom League (she was friends with the President, Charlotte Despard). The Salters had become Quakers in the early 1900s, which had solidified Ada’s commitment to non-violence.

After the start of the First World War the Salters’ dedicated themselves to campaigning against it. Ada was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and they both worked for the Non-Conscription League from 1916. They used their house in Kent to help conscientious objectors recover from harsh treatment in prison. In 1915 the government prevented Ada from attending the Hague Peace Conference, but she did make it to Bern, Switzerland to represent the ILP at a conference of socialist women opposed to the war. Vocally opposing the war was an incredibly brave stance to take, and the Salters were threatened and abused for their views.

Whilst in the WLL Ada conducted research into social housing; she advocated replacing slums with council houses designed to suit the needs of working class women. She also believed that fresh air and nature helped physically, mentally, and morally, so advocated urban gardening and pioneered organised campaigning against air pollution in London. In 1919 Ada was re-elected to Bermondsey Council, and in 1920 she launched the Beautification Committee, which went on to plant 9000 trees and 60000 plants.

In 1922 Ada was made Mayor, which gave her the power to launch a housing campaign. She demolished slums, and beautified those that couldn’t be knocked down with window boxes, trees and flowers. Also believing in the ‘beautification’ of the individual, Ada organised cultural and sporting events across the borough. She finally managed to get her perfect council housing built in Wilson Grove, small cottages inspired by the Garden City movement. They were too low density to really be a solution to housing problems in London, but the small estate was successful, and still stands today.

Despite the risks, the Salters’ refused to leave Bermondsey at the outbreak of  the Second World War. Their house was bombed in 1942, and Ada died on the 4th of December 1942. Ada Salter was a brave and determined woman who dedicated most of her life to the community of Bermondsey. She didn’t compromise, even refusing to wear the mayoral chain because it contradicted her Quaker beliefs. She is an important figure in local London history, and her perspectives on social housing are still relevant today, as the fight for affordable housing in the capital increases in intensity.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Brown, Matthew: “ILP@120: Ada Salter- Sister of the People,” Independent Labour Publications. Last modified 11th November 2013, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at  http://www.independentlabour.org.uk/main/2013/11/11/ilp120-ada-salter-%E2%80%93-sister-of-the-people/

Oldfield, Sybil. “Salter, Ada (1866-1942),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 2004, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/view/article/38531 (subscription required for access)

Quakers in the World. “Quakers in Action: Ada Salter.” No date, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/297

Simkin, John. “Ada Salter,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22nd July 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/PRsalterAD.htm

Wikipedia. “Ada Salter.” Last modified 2nd March, 2016, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Salter

Wikipedia. “Bermondsey Settlement.” Last modified 24th April 2015, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermondsey_Settlement

Wikipedia. “Settlement Movement.” Last modified 27th April 2016, accessed 21st July 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Settlement_movement

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