August meeting on Ada Salter

We were back in person for our August meeting and ready to learn more about the history of local women, in particular Ada Salter.

We were joined by Oonagah Gay OBE, a qualified guide who has led walks for the last seven years. Oonagh guided us from Bermondsey tube station around our local area and shared her expertise on the life and work of Ada Salter.

Much of what Ada, and her husband Alfred Salter, introduced to Bermondsey has stood the test of time. Trees, flowers, schools and houses are a lasting legacy of the Salters in Bermondsey.

Whilst Bermondsey has of course changed a lot since their time, including access to the Thames which would have been blocked by industrial warehouses, Ada’s statue now looks out longingly onto the Thames, with daughter Joyce in view and husband Alfred behind her.

Her statue, which features a spade to show how passionate she was about planting trees and flowers for the health of the local community in Bermondsey, is a reminder of the power of women creating change in their local community.

Statue of Ada Salter overlooking the Thames. Ada is holding a shovel in her hand.

Ada Brown was born in Northamptonshire in 1866. Wanting to escape, she moved to London to join the St Pancras settlement, before moving to the Bermondsey settlement. Settlement houses provided social, health and educational services to the local community. Here, Ada worked with working class women to empower them, including trips to the seaside and teaching them chess to a standard where they could compete. Ada enjoyed the work and the women loved her.

It was at the Bermondsey settlement where she met her future husband, Alfred Salter, a medical student at Guys hospital. The pair married in 1900 and spent the rest of their lives living in and dedicated to Bermondsey, between them representing the local area at a Borough, County and National level for much of their later lives.

In 1909, Ada became the first woman councillor in Bermondsey, first Labour councillor in Bermondsey and one of the first women councillors in London. However, just a year later, tragedy struck and the Salters’ only child, Joyce, aged nine years old, died of scarlet fever after suffering with it three times. This was devastating for the couple, who did not have any more children. Joyce is memoralised alongside her parents and cat on the Thames path.

Following this tragedy, Ada threw herself into her work. Ada recognised that in order to change the lives of women for the better, they needed better housing and access to nature. In 1919 Ada was re-elected to Bermondsey Council and appointed Mayor in 1922 giving her the power to make the changes she wanted to see. In 1920 the Beautification Committee was launched, slums demolished and thousands of trees and plants planted across Bermondsey.

On our walk, we visited Wilson Grove where the houses imagined and built under Ada’s watchful eye still stand tall. In the area in the 1900s, respiratory disease was 3 times the national average. Ada knew that access to sanitary houses and nature would be transformational for the people who lived here.

House on the Wilson estate surrounded by trees - trees are not the originals planted by Ada.

We also visited the Arnold Estate, where Oonagh showed us the recreational cage which now doubles up as a football pitch and basketball court. In the 1900s, there were no parks in Bermondsey or anywhere safe for children to play. Space was taken up mostly by warehouses and housing, but recreational cages meant that children had a place to play safely and whichever ball they were playing with stayed within the cage!

Ada didn’t just change lives at home, but also at work. We heard about the 1911 factory strikes where thousands of women walked out of local jam and biscuit factories in demand for better pay and conditions. Ada’s history of working with women meant she was an excellent organiser and working with the Women’s Labour League ensured the strike was recognised as a union movement. After three weeks of strikes, the women returned to work in victory after winning their wage claim.

We also visited the Municipal Building, where Ada and Alfred would have spent a lot of their time. Nearby was Bermondsey Spa, bars, solariums and Turkish baths opened by Alfred. As Alfred was a doctor, the couple understood how beneficial being clean was in general and how access to solariums could treat TB.

Municipal building in Bermondsey

Ada and Alfred have left a lasting legacy on Bermondsey, but perhaps one of the most amazing things Oonagh told us was that, thanks to them creating gardens and public parks, birds and butterflies returned to Bermondsey for the first time in 50 years.

Reflecting on the walk, member and Vice President Jess Faulkner said, “walking with Oonagh means I have noticed things I have never done so before and Belles are already sharing what they have noticed of the Salters since our walk. The walk is a reminder to look up, notice and give thanks to those before us who have transformed our local area.”

For more information on Ada Salter:

Biography by Graham Taylor is a full length study of Ada Salter

The Salters Centenary website offers events, such as cycle rides and tree walks, to explore throughout the year.

Municipal Dreams is another important source with two blogs on Bermondsey, the first on Beautification and the second on housing.

There is another blog on tree planting.

There is a local Bermondsey in Bloom bulb planting campaign at present to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Beautification Committee. Here are some photos from St James

The Wellcome Foundation has a useful webpage where you can access the wonderful Bermondsey Council films made in the 1920s and 1930s to promote public health and housing.

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