SALTER, Ada (1866–1942)
Plaque erected in 2023 by English Heritage at 149 Lower Road, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 2XL, London Borough of Southwark
Philanthropy and Reform, Politics and Administration
ADA SALTER 1866–1942 Social reformer and first woman mayor of a London borough lived here
Ada Salter was a social reformer, environmental improver and local politician who in 1922 became Mayor of Bermondsey. She is commemorated with a blue plaque at 149 Lower Road, Rotherhithe, where she lived in the late 1890s.
Ada Brown was born into a Wesleyan Methodist family in Raunds, Northamptonshire, in 1866. Alongside her education, she took an active role in local religious and cultural life at the Temperance Hall, the chapel and the sewing circle (a women’s discussion group that met at the family home).
In 1896, she joined the Wesleyan Sisters of the People (at the West London Mission), moving on to the Bermondsey Settlement in 1897. This was a Liberal, Wesleyan version of Toynbee Hall – the Anglican settlement founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb in Whitechapel in 1884, where well-educated workers lived alongside locals in some of London’s poorest streets. In common with other settlements, Bermondsey aimed to ‘become a centre of social life’, where all classes could meet ‘on equal terms for healthful intercourse and recreation’.
In 1898, Ada Brown met Dr Alfred Salter through the Settlement. They married in 1900 and moved into the flat above his Bermondsey practice. Alfred had gained the highest honours at Guy’s Hospital but chose to become a ‘poor man’s doctor’. Both became members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Their only child, (Ada) Joyce, was born in in 1902 but died in 1910, after a third bout of scarlet fever. Her death fuelled the Salters’ determination ‘to make Bermondsey a fit place to live in’ for everyone.
Salter became president of the Women’s Liberal Association locally. When, in 1906, the Liberal Party abandoned its commitment to full suffrage, she resigned and in 1908 helped found the Bermondsey branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). She went on to co-found, with Margaret Macdonald, the Women’s Labour League (WLL). Backed by the WLL and the Women’s Freedom League in 1909, Ada stood as an ILP candidate for Bermondsey Borough Council and was elected – becoming both the first woman and the first Labour councillor in Bermondsey.
SERVICE TO BERMONDSEY
Re-elected to the borough council in 1919, Ada Salter became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922 – the first Labour woman to be elected as a mayor in Britain and the first woman mayor of a London borough (the first in Britain was Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson). As mayor, she had the duty of announcing the selection of her husband as the Labour MP for Bermondsey West. Alfred championed public health provision locally, while Ada led the housing programme, combining an ambitious slum clearance and house-building programme with the aim of making Bermondsey a garden city.
Ada formed the Bermondsey Beautification and Public Amenities Committee in 1919 and was also active in the London Gardens Guild, becoming chairman of the National Gardens Guild in 1932–4. She regarded beautification as a civic duty and by 1931 Bermondsey’s main streets were planted with 7,000 trees. Her open spaces were not just green but ablaze with colour, including new strains of hardy dahlias, the ‘Bermondsey Gem’ and ‘Rotherhithe Gem’.
By the end of the 1930s, Bermondsey boasted a public health service, palatial baths and wash-houses, an ambitious slum-clearance and housing programme, playgrounds, gardens and parks. The 'Bermondsey Revolution' was in no small part due to the work of Ada Salter, in partnership with her husband, Alfred. She never wavered in her belief that, in conjunction with adequate housing and health care, an attractive urban environment with green spaces was vital to the welfare of the people, and should be accessible to all. ‘Socialism in action; that is what she was.’
LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL
In 1925, Salter was elected to the London County Council (LCC) in South Hackney. Three years later, she was (with Eveline Lowe) elected for Bermondsey West, the only LCC metropolitan borough to be represented by two women. She became a member of the LCC Parks Committee and in 1934 was made vice-chairman in Herbert Morrison’s newly Labour-controlled LCC. With Lowe, she assisted Morrison in applying Bermondsey initiatives – housing, maternity services, and beautification – to London as a whole.
Ada retired from the LCC Parks Committee in July 1939, cheered that Eveline Lowe was now the first woman to chair the LCC. The Salters’ already poor health deteriorated with the worsening international situation and, from 1940, the bombing of the borough. Along with much of the rest of Bermondsey, their homes together, and some of the institutions they built, were destroyed.
Ada died on 5 December 1942 and was cremated at Camberwell Crematorium. Friends and comrades remembered her at Peckham Meeting House, where Ada had been an elder, and there was a public service at the bombed-out Anglican church of St James, Bermondsey.
149 LOWER ROAD, ROTHERHITHE
Soon after joining the Bermondsey Settlement in 1897, Ada Brown moved temporarily to 149 Lower Road, Rotherhithe; she stayed there again in 1898. This was the Women’s House of the Bermondsey Settlement, sometimes also known as the Bermondsey Women’s Settlement, a mile or so to the south-east of the main Settlement building.
From here Ada undertook social work across Bermondsey, where she had charge of a mothers’ meeting and four girls’ clubs, including the St George’s Club. This catered for rag sorters, wood choppers and tinsmiths – ‘the roughest type of waterside girls … who represent the most difficult type of the most difficult class … being … exposed, from their earliest years … to intemperance’. During this time Ada also became a workhouse visitor and was involved with an exhibition of plants grown by the elderly inmates of the nearby St Olave’s Union Workhouse for the Settlement’s Flower Show.
The other buildings where Ada lived or worked were either bombed or, like the main Settlement building, demolished subsequently. Alfred is commemorated at several sites locally.
The plaque at number 149 can be seen from within Southwark Park. In the summer of 1911, when thousands of women walked out of jam, biscuit and box factories during the ‘Bermondsey uprising’, some 15,000 attended a demonstration in the park. Ada Salter organised strike relief – a daily meal for 50,000 strikers and families – which allowed them to stay out and win substantial gains. The park was also the site of her last battle: to save the railings, her old English garden, and many trees from being uprooted for the war effort. Not all the losses were permanent, however. In 1943, the LCC remade and named the garden in her honour and across Bermondsey some of her trees remain.
- Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter (London, 1949)
- Elizabeth Lebas, ‘The making of a socialist Arcadia: arboriculture and horticulture in the London Borough of Bermondsey after the Great War’, Garden History, 27:2 (1999), 219–37 (public library subscription required) (accessed 8 March 2023)
- Municipal Dreams blog (accessed 8 March 2023):
Healthcare in Bermondsey: reaching for the ‘New Jerusalem’
The beautification of Bermondsey fresh air and fun
- Sybil Oldfield, ‘Salter [née Brown], Ada (1866–1942), socialist and pacifist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (public library subscription required) (accessed 8 March 2023)
- Graham Taylor, Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism (London, 2016)
1. J Scott Lidgett, Reminiscences (London, 1928), 29–30.
2. Manchester Guardian (25 August 1945).
3. Opening words of the Bermondsey Labour Party’s address to local electors (November 1922).
4. The Friends’ Quarterly Examiner (1942).
5. LSE Booth/B/283 [Eighth Annual Report of the Bermondsey Settlement] (1899), 30–31.