Ada Salter

1866 - 1942

Ada Salter (née Brown) was born in Raunds, Northamptonshire. Her parents were Wesleyan Methodists. and she grew up full of evangelical zeal. sAs soon as she could, she travelled to London to join the West London Mission. There she developed a social conscience that drove her to take on the girls’ club at the Bermondsey settlement that had been founded by John Scott Lidgett.  The girls were tough, working in local factories  as rag-pickers, wood choppers and tin-smiths.  Drunkenness was a problem and they often came to the club in an intoxicated state.  Ada won them over with her kind gentleness and concern for them.
 

She met Alfred Salter, an agnostic, socialist doctor with revolutionary ideas, at the settlement.   He was passionate about helping the poor and socially deprived people in Bermondsey.  Together with Scott Lidgett she brought Alfred back to Christianity.  In 1900 they married and became members of the Religious Society of Friends.  Married life was frugal, very different from her comfortable childhood.  He husband worked long hours and either did not charge his patients or asked them for a nominal fee.  She and Alfred loved nature and Ada dreamed of transforming their Bermondsey surroundings for the benefit of all who lived there.  She established a “Beautification Committee” and soon the narrow ugly streets of Bermondsey were full of trees, some of which she had persuaded the Gas Company to finance, telling them that their condition could indicate the presence of a gas leak underground. Churchyards, including Long Lane Quaker Burial Ground, were asked to move their headstones to the sides and to plant flowers in their place.

In 1902 her only child, Joyce was born.  She and Alfred decided that she should mix with the poor children in the area where they lived and go to the same school in Keeton’s Road. Sadly, Joyce contracted scarlet fever three times, and on the third occasion in 1910 she did not survive.  Her parents' grief knew no bounds and it is said that Ada never fully recovered from the loss of her beloved daughter.

She and Alfred were founders of the first branch of the young Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bermondsey.  In 1909 Ada stood as their sole candidate in the elections for the borough council.  She was successful and became the first woman elected to a borough council in London.  In 1911 the whole working population of Bermondsey went on strike for better employment conditions.  Ada organized free meals for the women and children.  She did this again in the General Strike of 1926.

The First World War (1914-1918) was a challenge to the Salters who were committed pacifists.  Their home was attacked by stone throwing mobs and they were threatened and abused for their ant-war stance.  Even some of the people that they had regarded as friends turned against them.  Ada gave many hours to the work of the No-Conscription Fellowship.  She and Alfred also allowed their new home Fairby Grange in Kent to be used as a convalescent home for conscientious objectors who had been badly treated in prison.

At the end of the war Ada represented the British section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Zurich and Vienna.  She used her home as a sanctuary for starving Austrian women and children.

When she was chosen as the first woman Labour mayor she declined to wear the mayoral robes or the chain of office or to impose chaplain-led prayers on the council preferring a Quaker-style beginning to meetings.

Ada and her husband introduced several health clinics and a solarium to help to fight tuberculosis in Bermondsey.  There was a drop in infant and maternal death as a result.  She felt that women had an important role to play in politics and that home loving women should serve the community as they served their families.  Ada identified herself with a green belt policy that preserved open green spaces.

The Second World War (1939-1945) horrified the Salters.  With their policy of pacifism they were isolated, even within the Labour party.  The blitz, with its severe bombing, saw them lose many of their friends in Bermondsey, and the place that had been their home.   She remained convinced that eventually the forces of creativity and kindness would prevail.

She died in Balham in 1942.  James Hudson wrote in the Friends’ Quarterly Examiner ‘Socialism in action; that is what she was’.

Further Reading and Credits

Image of Ada Salter from Southwark Local History Library and Archive