Ada Salter’s ideas and activism transformed social and economic conditions in a poverty-stricken corner of south-east London, and revolutionised local politics. So why has she been written out of Labour history? GRAHAM TAYLOR reveals her remarkable story.
Ada Brown was born in 1866 in Raunds, Northamptonshire. Her family were Gladstone Liberals in politics and Wesleyan Methodists in religion, but she was more radical on both counts. Fluent in French and German, she followed foreign policy and arrived at pacifistic views in line with the left-wing Liberal, John Bright. In Methodism she disliked church services and her rational religion led her to support Hugh Price Hughes, champion of women’s rights and ‘Social Christianity’.
Katherine, Hughes’s wife, was committed to the cause of working-class women and organised ‘Sisters of the People’ to work in the slums. They participated when Hughes sent aid to the match-girls of Bryant and May in 1888 and the families of London dockers in 1889.
Ada sent money to Hughes in London but in Raunds was cut off from the action, tied like most Victorian middle-class women to the family home. In 1895, however, there was a lock-out in her locality and Raunds chapel was opened up for use by the union. As solidarity flooded in from across the country, Ada now heard, probably for the first time, the socialist oratory of the great ILP leaders, Keir Hardie and Tom Mann.
In 1896, when her sister, Mary Baldwin, married, Ada took her chance, moved to London, and enlisted as a Sister of the People. She abandoned a comfortable home to enter the vermin-infested tenements of Soho, King’s Cross and Bermondsey. In the grim and stinking slums she sometimes had to visit alone, she faced the danger of epidemic diseases, criminals, pimps and drunken husbands.
Ada had a genius for running social clubs for working girls, and mixed clubs too, so clubs became her speciality. Though the Sisters did not preach religion but strove for social improvement, few Sisters could hold the attention of slum teenagers, let alone win their affections, as Ada could. Ada’s clubs became legendary in Bermondsey.
A Bermondsey uprising
It was at the Bermondsey Settlement that Ada met Alfred Salter in 1898. He was a career doctor ambitious for research, fame, fortune, and perhaps a mansion in Kent, but Scott Lidgett, founder of Bermondsey Settlement, drew Alfred into the work and, with Ada, converted him from militant atheism to Hughes’ Social Christianity.
Ada had planned to continue her social work with her brother, Richard, Methodist minister in Lancaster, and her sister, Beatrice, but she and Alfred fell in love and were married in 1900. By 1902 he had set up a medical practice in Bermondsey and she had given birth to their only child, Joyce.
Alfred now transferred his ambitions to becoming a Liberal councillor and MP. Ada, however, was interested in the socialism of the ILP and, with her best friend, Eveline Lowe, joined a women-only ‘sewing circle’ in central London, hosted by Margaret MacDonald. Every Wednesday they debated issues, such as conditions for working women in factories, social housing, reduction of housework, and the vote.
In 1905 the Railway Women’s Guild resolved to set up a women’s labour organisation and the ILP sewing circle offered to help. Thus, in 1906 Ada became a co-founder of the Women’s Labour League. But this caused the Salters a political problem. Alfred had been elected as a councillor by Liberals but Ada was now committed to the ILP.
In 1908 Ada and Alfred resolved the issue by forming a Bermondsey ILP branch. The result was sensational. In 1909 Ada, standing for the council as an ILP candidate, made history. She was elected as the first woman councillor in Bermondsey, first Labour councillor in Bermondsey and first Labour woman councillor in London.
At this high point for Ada disaster struck. In 1910 Joyce contracted scarlet fever and Alfred, despite his brilliance as a doctor, could not save her. The Salters were marked by this sadness for the rest of their lives, but at the end of 1910 they found a response.
Since epidemic diseases came out of insanitary slums, the troika of Ada, Alfred and Eveline made plans to demolish them. The ILP would take over Bermondsey, Eveline would get herself elected to the London Council and Alfred would be elected MP. Amazingly, all three aims were achieved and by 1934 the worst slums were demolished.
Immediately after Joyce’s death, however, the future did look bleak. Ada was isolated on the council, as the only woman and only ILP councillor. A dramatic turn of events changed everything.
In 1911 employers in the Bermondsey factories pushed their luck during a transport strike, exploiting their mostly female workforces like never before, assuming the wives of strikers could not strike. Ada and the WLL had been recruiting in the area to Mary Macarthur’s National Federation of Women Workers. Few had joined, but suddenly, without warning, during the hot August, women started to walk out of the factories in their thousands. The famous ‘Bermondsey uprising’ had begun. Soon Ada’s friend Charlotte Despard, George Lansbury and Sylvia Pankhurst were addressing 15,000 strikers in Southwark Park.
Everywhere in the district Ada set up food relief-points so families did not starve. After she repeated this for the dock strike of 1912 the transport workers union (these days known as Unite) were so impressed they awarded her honorary membership. Similarly, in the General Strike of 1926 Ada was treasurer of the London Dock Strike Fund and was made honorary member of the labourers’ union (now the GMB).
By 1914 Ada, now well-known all over the country, was elected national president of the Women’s Labour League, a position of some influence. Later, the Labour Party replaced the WLL with powerless ‘women’s sections’, but before 1918 there were often more women activists than men and the WLL made its own policies, always to the left of Labour’s.
As president, Ada was keen to emphasise that socialist revolution was for both men and women, despite the WLL’s concentration on women. In a famous speech she demanded unity:
“When the trades union movement fully realises that all the workers, men and women, youth and maidens, were members one of another, then they will hear more than the rumble of revolution in the distance, the revolution will be here.”
But world war now broke out, not revolution. Ada had already warned the country against the policies of Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, in her Birmingham speech of 1912: “We are tired of wars brought about by groups of those who hold concessions in Africa and other lands. We want, not new battleships, but a new policy. All questions of our foreign relations should not be in the hands of one man.”
Ada threw herself into anti-war work. She was elected to the executive of the Women’s International League, which sent women delegates (Ada was one) on perilous journeys to anti-war conferences in the middle of war-torn Europe. Deploring the imprisonment of Rosa Luxemburg, the WIL called for negotiated peace. Ada worked for the No Conscription Fellowship too, providing invaluable maintenance for conscientious objectors and their families.
Once the war was over, the ILP grew stronger and in 1922 the Salters made their big breakthrough. Alfred was elected MP while Ada made history again, this time elected as the first woman mayor of Bermondsey, first woman mayor in London, and first Labour woman mayor in Britain. As this was a time when mayors and local councils had much more power than they do today, the stage was set for the ‘Bermondsey revolution’.
Her first actions symbolised what was to come. She rejected the mayoral chain and robes, offensive to her Quaker egalitarianism. The chaplain-led prayers at council meetings were abolished. To the fury of the right-wing press, she replaced the Union Jack over the Town Hall with a red flag sporting the historic symbols of Bermondsey, St Olave and Rotherhithe. Even the end of her mayoralty caused consternation in the press. She returned to the council, unspent, a large part of the personal expenses lavishly assigned to the duties of a mayor.
The Bermondsey revolution
The Bermondsey revolution of 1922-34 was dominated by Ada’s ideas. Alfred pushed for the council’s innovations in health but the policies on housing and the environment (‘beautification’) were taken from the WLL.
As early as 1913 the WLL’s housing committee had decided new housing should be cottage-style and aimed at cutting housework by building public baths, public laundries and communal kitchens. In this work Ada was backed by many women councillors, such as Jessie Stephen and Ada Broughton, former suffragettes. Bermondsey had more women councillors than any other council. The Sisters of the People had taken power.
Ada’s ‘beautification committee’ was a wonder of the age, attracting delegations of experts from all over Europe. She wanted, above all, to clear the slums, but in the meantime her committee aimed for trees on every street, window-boxes for every house, playgrounds in every ward, and sports or music in every open space or park. She believed contact with nature would raise the morale of the people and bring them self-respect. She planted over 9,000 trees, and Bermondsey was soon winning all-London prizes for its gardens and its sports teams.
To help families Ada opened the borough’s first public baths in 1927, with a swimming pool and public laundry, and by 1933 the Daily Herald reported that Bermondsey had done “more slum-clearance than the whole of the rest of London put together”.
Even setbacks now turned into victories. After the ILP’s disaffiliation from Labour in 1932, Ada stood in 1934 for election as a ‘Socialist League’ candidate within Labour. The result was phenomenal in the history of local government. Labour won 54 out of 54 Bermondsey seats, four out of four London seats, and both parliamentary seats. Ada secured the highest Labour vote ever recorded.
Ada also retained her London Council seat and was elected president of the National Garden Guild. Since Labour, led by Herbert Morrison, was now in control of London, this meant her vision of beautification (with its playgrounds, music and sports, not greenery alone) could be exported all over London and all over Britain. To Ada’s joy, Morrison backed the idea of the ‘Green Belt’, approved by the WLL 20 years before. By 1937 the London Green Belt had been integrated into national legislation.
The Second World War was heart-breaking for the Salters and when Nazi bombs struck their home in Bermondsey, they took refuge with Ada’s sisters, Alice and Adelaide, in Balham. There Ada died in 1942, aged 76.
Alfred, in despair about his own legacy, wrote that Ada, successful to the end, had died “triumphant”. Nonetheless Ada’s name was soon to fade, not his. Traditional historians, accustomed to treating women lightly, passed over Ada. Marxists and Labourites were both dismissive of a socialism not run by state planners but based on co-operatives, workers’ representation and care for the environment. Her call for a peaceful revolution that would end capitalism did not help either.
Worse, Fenner Brockway’s Bermondsey Story (1949) described everything from the viewpoint of a male MP. Time and again he awarded to Alfred plaudits for policies down to them both, or down to Ada alone. In his book Ada is Alfred’s sweet-natured helper, not a force in her own right.
Thankfully, Ada’s standing is now being restored, thanks to research by Christine Collette, Sybil Oldfield and Jo Vellacott. In the new Dictionary of National Biography, the Salters are one of the few couples in history to have an entry each, with Ada’s slightly longer than Alfred’s.
A statue of Ada has now been sculpted. Next year it may be installed, if funding is found. In London there are only 14 public statues of women, so Ada’s will be the 15th. Hers will be the only public statue of a woman trade unionist, of a woman environmentalist, of a Quaker woman and of an elected woman politician.
Interestingly, of the 15 statues, three will be of ILP women (the other two are of Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret McMillan). One fifth of female public statues in London, spanning the last 2000 years since Boudicca, will come from one tiny political party that briefly flourished in the 20th century and never once won power.
Graham Taylor is a retired history lecturer. He writes about labour movement issues and was co-author with Jack Dromey of Grunwick: the Workers’ Story published by Lawrence & Wishart in 1978. He is writing a book about Ada Salter and the Sisters of the People to be published in last summer 2014.
‘Dr Salter’s Daydream’, Diane Gorvin’s 1991 statue of Alfred Salter waving at his daughter, Joyce, was stolen from outside the Angel Pub near the River Thames in Bermondsey in November 2011. The Salter Statues Campaign was set up by local residents, including the Salters’ great niece, to raise £100,000 for a new monument to include statues of both Alfred and Ada (see artist’s impression, left).
To find out more and make a donation go to: www.salterstatues.co.uk
See also Graham Taylor’s ‘Alfred Salter & the Bermondsey Revolution’.