ILPer Ada Salter is due to be honoured with one of London’s famous blue plaques, the round English Heritage markers that “link the people of the past with the buildings of the present”.
The plaque for Ada – who pioneered socialist improvements in the deprived London slums of Bermondsey 100 years ago – will be unveiled on International Women’s Day, 8 March, by Dame Judi Dench, and mounted on 149 Lower Road in what is now the London borough of Southwark.
The house was the first place where Ada lived after moving to the area in 1897 to work at the Bermondsey Settlement. It is described by Graham Taylor in his lauded biography of the ILPer as “an ordinary nine-roomed house” that “overlooked the green foliage of Southwark Park while at the rear was Canada Dock, with its piles of Baltic timber and the tapering masts of ships”.
She lodged at the address for just a few months. The family home at 5 Storks Road, where she lived with husband Alfred and daughter Joyce, and cultivated her famous garden, was destroyed by war damage. And the impressive Bermondsey Settlement building, where Alfred was living when he met Ada, was demolished in the 1960s.
The honour is a fitting tribute, not only to Ada Salter and her work in “beautifying” Bermondsey, but to the year-long Salter Centenary project that was brought to a climax in January with John Whelan’s innovative play Bermondsey Revolution, staged by the People’s Company in front of packed audiences at Southwark Playhouse.
Set 100 years in the future, the play tells the Salters’ story by looking back, not only at their lives 200 years before, but at the centenary project of 2022. Using the device of an imaginary 22nd century technology, it recalls their triumphs and tragedies by giving the Salter statues new life in AI form; sending school pupils back to the past as “immersive” historical characters; and projecting photos and film clips via a holographic controller’s digital databank.
Described by playwright and artistic director Whelan as “Brechtian” in conception, the play is suitably radical in form for depicting a pair of political activists whose ideas on improving the lives of the poor were ahead of their time.
The Salters were able to put many of those plans into practice by building a supportive grassroots political movement based on the ethical socialism of the ILP, and then gaining election – to parliament in Alfred’s case, and to lead the local council in Ada’s.
As Whelan put it in the play’s programme: “The wonderful partnership between these two creative minds transformed an inner-city slum into a healthy, green oasis.”
Despite its futuristic format, the play also reflects on the present, drawing parallels with 1922 and showing that “the challenges Alfred and Ada faced more than a century ago are as pressing and crucial to us now”.
That message has been central to the Salter Centenary project as a whole, as coordinator Sheila Taylor explained: “Quite how visionary the Salters were – on the environment, housing and public health, in particular – has become increasingly evident to us as the year has gone on, faced as we are by a modern world enduring climate crisis, worldwide homelessness and a global pandemic.
“Their insights from 100 years ago resonated with everyone we spoke to, and many people were inspired to do something to help spread the values and principles of the Salters.
“The fact that English Heritage have now agreed to mark Ada’s achievements with a blue plaque is hugely gratifying,” she added. “As the first woman mayor in London and the first Labour woman mayor in Britain, it is also appropriate that it will be revealed, by our patron Judi Dench, on International Women’s Day.
“The whole centenary year has truly been a much greater success than we ever could have hoped.”
His ILP pamphlet, Ada Salter and the Origins of Ethical Socialism, is still available for £4.00.
His biography, Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism, is also still available.