People have long come to London to enjoy its many attractions, but for some in the 1920s and 30s it wasn’t tourism that brought them here. Visitors travelled from across Europe and America to see Bermondsey Council’s pioneering work in providing residents with decent homes in pleasant surroundings.
The progressive local authority replaced unhealthy slums in this industrial district with well-built homes clad with colourful window boxes on tree-lined streets. It also improved the well-being of residents thanks to investment in public health. “Bermondsey led the country in public health matters,” the British Medical Journal said of the area in the 1920s. “Posters, propaganda vans, and health exhibitions brought the elements of hygiene of the multitudes.”
Films – with titles such as Where There’s Soap, There’s Life – were shown in venues such as new libraries and public baths, as well as being projected from ‘cinemotors’ – vans with screens on the back which stopped in housing estates. The pioneering Bermondsey Health Centre on Grange Road, which brought a range of surgeries and services together on one site, still stands, but the building itself is today looking a bit tired.
Such was the extent of Bermondsey Council’s work that it outgrew a former vestry building and so between 1928 and 1930 built the imposing Bermondsey Town Hall, which survives on Spa Road but is now apartments. Erected next to the structure where the authority generated its own electricity, public baths previously stood on the site.
There were of course many people who delivered Bermondsey Council’s services, but there was one individual whose contribution particularly stood out. Ada Salter was one of London’s first female councillors, the first woman mayor in London and the first Labour women mayor in the country as a whole. Her vision and tireless work transformed Bermondsey for the benefit of its people.
Born in Northamptonshire, Ada Brown moved to London to help the poor of Somers Town, a slum near to where St Pancras and Kings Cross stations are today. But in 1897 she re-located south of the river Thames to Bermondsey and was based at the Bermondsey Settlement, which had been opened in 1892 by the Rev Johnscott Lidgett, who – unusually for the settlement movement – was a Methodist.
Bermondsey was one of the poorest parts of London in the late 19th century and Bermondsey Settlement provided social, health and education services for the most needy. Designed by Elijah Hoole, the same architect behind Toynbee Hall, the vast building remained in use until 1967 (and was demolished two years later).
As I‘ve written before, Bermondsey was the country’s leather making centre and workers toiled away in dirty conditions. Many more worked at the docks. Bermondsey was also an important food processing and packaging district with some 40% of jam and biscuits consumed in Britain made in the area’s factories. The likes of Hartley’s Jam, Sarson’s Vinegar and Pearce Cuff’s custard factory became major employers.
In a former pub (now demolished) called the George near the Bermondsey riverfront, Ada ran classes for poor girls living in the area. The group size was capped at 14 and she taught them everything from sewing to chess.
It was at the Bermondsey Settlement that Ada met her future husband, Dr Alfred Salter, They married in August 1900 and briefly lived together in the flat above Alfred’s GP surgery on nearby Jamaica Road (the building would have been roughly where Bermondsey Underground station is today), before moving into their new house. Alfred’s practice was a cooperative and poor people, who couldn’t the cost of treatment, were given reduced rates or didn’t have to pay anything.
Ada was President of the local Women’s Liberal Party until 1906, leaving when she became unhappy that it hadn’t stuck to its commitment of granting women the vote. She transferred to the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which had recently been established in the area with 14 members. And in 1909 Ada became not only the movement’s first councillor in Bermondsey, but also the first woman councillor in the borough.
Just as Ada supported the dockers’ strikes, she also backed the Bermondsey Uprising of 1911. Some 14,000 women at 21 factories went on strike within a day of each other in protest of terrible working conditions. “We are not white slaves. We are Pinks’ slaves,” was one of the slogans used to describe the treatment of staff at one jam-making factory company.
“We are striking for more pay, mister, and we won’t go in till we get it,” one female chocolate factory worker told the Bermondsey and Southwark Recorder. Non-unionised female factory workers were on strike for 12 weeks and Ada helped set up soup kitchens so they wouldn’t go without food, reputedly feeding some 50,000 people in the process.
There were however different accounts of the dispute. A spokesperson for biscuit making company Peek Freans told the South London Press that it “had no reason whatever to suppose that there were any dissatisfaction whatever among our hands either with the rate of wages or the conditions of employment.” They added: “While not confessing to be model philanthropists… we have always been on excellent terms with our workpeople.”
But by the end of the strike 18 of the 21 factories where women had walked out the workers gained pay and there was a commitment to end piecework. And there was a union established at most of the workplaces concerned.
Ada was a committed Quaker and adamantly opposed war. She helped found the Women’s Independent League for Peace and Freedom and, with Alfred, supported the No Conscription Fellowship.
After being re-elected to Bermondsey Council in 1919, the following year Ada founded her Beautification Committee. Her position was strengthened when she was elected Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922 at the head of a Labour-run council (it had 38 out of 54 seats) and housing was put high up the agenda. In the same year Alfred was elected as MP for West Bermondsey.
The ILP had promised in its manifesto to “make Bermondsey a fit place to live” and “promote health, to lower the death rate, and to increase the well-being… of the 120,000 people who live here.” It pledged to “cleanse, repair, rebuild and beautify it, make it a city of which all citizens can be proud.”
In the late 1920s and early 30s Ada dreams were realised in the form of Wilson Grove Estate. Some 500 two-storey ‘utopian’ cottage homes, surrounded by trees and gardens, were built to replace slums.
But it became clear that building developments that were just two stories high and surrounded by private gardens were not sustainable across the whole of Bermondsey. Wilson Grove Estate, for example, accommodated less people then the slum it replaced.
The Arnold Estate, which was built in the 1930s, made better use of space. Homes were built four and five storeys high and more thought was given to communal gardens. At Arnold there remains today an enclosed football pitch in the centre of the development – an idea that Ada pioneered to allow parents to keep watch of their children from their homes.
Ada’s Beautification agenda went far beyond housing however. Her vision saw new playgrounds built – including the one in the graveyard of St James Bermondsey church. – and by 1930s she had arrange for some 7,000 trees to be planted.
The Salters’ home in Storks Road was bombed during the Second World War. Ada died in Balham Park Road, where she was being cared for by her sisters, in December 1942 and her funeral took place the Quakers’ Peckham Meeting House. Alfred passed away in 1945. Bermondsey Council was abolished in 1965 and it became part of Southwark.
On the riverfront in Bermondsey, where there were once wharves and in an area where mill people around to take in views of the Thames, there are bronze statues of Ada, Alfred and their daughter Joyce.
The scene is called ‘Dr Salter’s Daydream’ whereby Alfred looks lovingly at his daughter playing. She had sadly died following a severe bout of scarlet fever, just after her eighth birthday. Unlike many of Bermondsey’s residents, the Salters has the means to leave the area and live somewhere with cleaner air and less diseases. But in choosing to stay and consequently suffering a very personal tragedy, they would help transform the lives of many.
When the bronze statues were created by Diane Gorvin in 1991, there was only Alfred – and no Ada. Given her considerable work in the local community, this angered many. The statues were stolen in 2011 (presumably so the bronze could be melted down and sold), but were replaced in 2014 thanks to raising £60,000 (an amount matched by Southwark Council) in crowd funding campaign.
This time Ada was, quite rightly, included. Depicted with a spade in her hand to allude to her love of gardening, we are left with a very visual reminder of the woman that did so much for the people of Bermondsey.