Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Alfred Salter

1873 - 1945

Born in Greenwich, London, Alfred had a strict religious upbringing as the son of Wesleyan Methodist parents, who later joined the Plymouth Brethren.  He had an amazing intellect: he was the top student in his year at Guys Hospital, winning two gold medals in addition to gaining a triple first-class honours degree.  Joseph Lister, pioneer of antiseptic surgery and a Quaker, was sufficiently impressed by Salter to offer him a post at the British Institute of Preventative Medicine, as a bacteriologlst.  Salter seemed destined to have a prestigious and lucrative career.

Things turned out very diferently. During his student years he had joined the Social Democratic Federation and had become an agnostic.  He had also visited the homes of working-class people in Bermondsey and seen the poverty in which people lived.  This left a lasting impression upon him and he determined to do something to relieve their plight.  In 1898 he went to live in the Bermondsey settlement, a centre for social service with a strongly Christian ethos, founded by John Scott Lidgett.  Here he met Ada Brown who ran the girls’ club.  Ada and Scott Lidgett brought Alfred back to Christianity.  Ada and Alfred were married in 1900. They joined the Religious Society of Friends.

Salter continued with his medical practice amongst the poor people, charging them either a nominal 6 pence and often nothing, for a consultation.  Fortunately Ada was willing to lead a life of altruistic self-denial.  Alfred worked very long hours, often seeing up to sixty patients in an evening.  The Salters developed a lifetime practice of reserving the hours between 11.00 pm and 1.00 am as their quiet time together. 

Their only child Joyce was born in 1902.  They made the decision not to protect her from the dirty, louse ridden, and sometimes sick children in their neighbourhood. They invited local children to play with Joyce in their home, and she attended the same school, at Keeton Road. Joyce contracted scarlet fever three times and died in 1910. Her parents were devastated but they responded by even more commitment to the needs of the poorest parents and children in London.

Both of the Salters were interested in politics and members of the Liberal Party.  In May 1908 they relinquished their membership in order to found the first branch of the young Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bermondsey.

In 1917 they moved to Fairby Grange in Kent.  The house was used for convalescence by traumatised soldiers and conscientious objectors who had been brutally treated in prison.  Later it became used as a summer camp for Bermondsey boys and women worn out by too much child bearing.

Alfred also persuaded the council in Bermondsey to provide semi-open air shelters for people suffering from tuberculosis which claimed over two hundred lives each year. As a doctor he had seen one case for every three houses in Bermondsey.  He was also instrumental in the renovation of bath houses and the provision of libraries.

Alfred realised that the only way that he could make a real difference to the poor in Bermondsey was through politics.  As a man of principle and also a pacifist and teetotaller he refused to court votes. On the eve of the General Election of 1922 he bluntly told an audience of potential electors, who drank and had served in the armed forces, that if they wanted a Member of Parliament who would reduce the price of beer or vote for an army or navy to defend Britain, they should vote for one of the other candidates.  These words were greeted by silence for a minute and then it is said that the whole audience rose to their feet and cheered.  He was voted in as their MP the following day.

In Parliament Salter was assiduous in dealing with his constituents’ problems.  He could be austere and did not win many friends with his adherence to temperance and comments on the drunkenness that he had witnessed at times in the House of Commons.

Throughout his life he remained a pacifist and a supporter of appeasement .  After the Munich agreement, which allowed Hitler to take over part of Czechoslovakia, he insisted that ‘the average German will withdraw his baking from Hitler if we show willingness to be just’.  His uncompromising pacifism was rejected by almost all of his political associates.  For most of the people of Bermondsey he was remembered as the “Doctor”.  The annual Salter Lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting is named after him.

Print this article