Friday, March 25, 2016

Ada's Garden and the Ada Salter statue: Celebration of the pioneering work of Ada Salter

Ada Salter
I am currently writing a post about Alfred and Ada Salter.  Although they achieved a considerable amount independently, the Salters were  very much a partnership but here I want to look very briefly at Ada and how she has been recognized and celebrated locally in recent  years. The Salters were social activists in Bermondsey in the first half of the 20th Century, when the Rotherhithe docks were still thriving and many of the dock workers were working class people who struggled financially in often very insalubrious conditions.  Unlike Michael Caine, Jessica Mitford and Princess Margaret, whose names are often bandied around when Rotherhithe is mentioned in connection with famous residents, Alfred and Ada Salter actually contributed to Rotherhithe and its people.  They helped its residents to combat the effects of poverty by both working to improve conditions on the ground, and helping to innovate social care in British politics.

Alfred Salter is probably the best known of the duo, but recently there has been much more recognition for the work of Ada Salter in her own right.  Salter Road, which connects Lower Road to Rotherhithe Street and Redriff Road, was named for them when it was constructed in the mid 1980s, a Rotherhithe primary school was named after Alfred Salter, and a foot bridge in Southwark Park was also named for him.  A trio of statues by the Angel public house on the Thames Path included Alfred, Joyce and the family's pet cat, but excluded Ada.

Ada's Garden naming ceremony.
Photograph by Steve Cornish
Recently, however, an awareness of Ada's contributions has emerged.  The statues of Alfred, Joyce and the cat, which were stolen several years ago, were replaced after a massive fund-raising campaign, and Ada was a very welcome addition to the group.  A new book has recently been published:   "Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism" by Graham Taylor, which recognizes her importance in early 20th century political and social reform.  And only this month, an undisturbed wildlife zone full of mature trees that sits between houses on Lower Road and the Tesco car park was given an official name:  Ada's Garden. The sign replaces one that was removed over a year ago by British Land, the developer of the shopping centre, which had explained how the wildlife area helped “support and safeguard the diversity of plant and animal life.”   Ada was an early environmentalist, a  follower of Ruskin and believed strongly in the value of nature to people and the importance of urban gardens.  She would have been delighted to be associated with this small corner of greenery that is sandwiched between buildings, roads and a railway.  It epitomizes her ideas of nature and urban life being more integrated for the benefit of all, completely consistent with the programme of beautification that she introduced when she became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1920, planting over 7000 trees throughout the borough, many in her newly established playgrounds.  Ada's Garden, home to a wide variety of insect and bird life, including dunnocks, blue tits, wrens, robins, wood pigeons and blackbirds, is a tiny oasis for wildlife on the edge of the urban chaos of the busy shopping centre.

Statue of Ada Salter, next to the
Angel public house.
Ada Brown (1866 - 1942) was born to a well-to-do family in Raunds in Northamptonshire. Her parents were Wesleyan Methodists, so she was brought up with principles of serving and only seeking leadership roles in order to serve the greater good.  Importantly, they also believed in free will and the ability to influence the future, requiring profound moral integrity in order to influence that future.  In 1896 Ada left Raunds with the intention of doing social work in London, joining the West London Mission to work with people of the slums of Soho and St Pancras.  Her main achievement was to establish social clubs for impoverished girls in those areas, places.  A year later she moved to Bermondsey to work at the Bermondsey Settlement.   The Bermondsey Settlement was run by a well known Methodist minister and Liberal politician, the Reverend John Scott Lidgett.  The Bermondsey Settlement location acted as a base for dedicated Methodists in  a very deprived area. They and other like-minded philanthropists created various societies and medical missions in the area, and Ada continued to establish the social clubs that had been so successful in north London.   Ada met Alfred Salter in Bermondsey.

Ada planting a tree in a newly
established playground
Alfred Salter (1873 - 1945)  was born in South Street, Greenwich.  Although he himself grew up to be agnostic his parents belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, so from early childhood Alfred was surrounded with ideals of charitable activities and the support of the poor.  Like Ada, his childhood experiences had a lot to do with his later directions and achievements.  Although he began his career in medical research, he began to work in Bermondsey to provide medical expertise to the impoverished.  Epidemic diseases were very poorly understood at the time, and were rife.  In the days before the NHS here was no state operated free medical support it fell to philanthropists and social reformers to attempt to provide support for those who were most vulnerable to disease and least capable of coping.  Conditions in Bermondsey were particularly bad. 

It was at the Bermondsey Settlement that Ada and Alfred met. Although up until meeting Ada, Alfred had had no particular religious affiliation, in 1900 he became a Quaker, and he and Ada were married in the same year.  In 1902 their only child Joyce was born.  Adhering to Quaker principles, they decided to live in the areas in which they worked on behalf of the poor, and when Joyce became old enough she attended the local school on Keeting Road.

It soon became evident to the Salters that their own work would only touch the tip of the iceberg, and that to really help the poor political change would be necessary.  Alfred joined the Liberal Party in 1903 and was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council in 1906.   Two years later he became a member of the London County Council. In 1907 women won the right to stand in elections, and Ada was elected as the first female Councillor in Bermondsey.  She and Alfred were founders of the first branch of the young Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bermondsey. In 1906 she co-founded the  Women's Labour League with Margaret MacDonald.  In 1909 Ada stood as their sole candidate in the elections for the borough council.  She was successful and became the first woman elected to a borough council in London.   In 1911 the whole working population of Bermondsey went on strike for better employment conditions.  Ada organized free meals for the women and children.  She did this again in the General Strike of 1926.  A Quaker and a pacifist, she was deeply disturbed by the First World War and campaigned extensively for peace, establishing the Wonen's International League for Peace and Freedom.  Ada became London’s first female Lord Mayor in 1920 but refused to wear the robes and chain of office, the symbols of status and power that were irrelevant to her work and contrary to hear beliefs. 

Ada Salter
The Salters experienced the impacts of poverty and disease personally.  Their only child Joyce died from scarlet in 1910.  Living in the heart of Bermondsey, the Salters were as vulnerable to disease as the people whom they were there to help. 

This brief summary misses out many important details about Ada's life, but the full post about both of the Salters will expand upon this small introduction to a remarkable person, environmentalist, social reformer and political activist.  It is wonderful to see her being recognized by history and by local residents.  I wonder what she would have thought about Southwark Councillor Mark Williams and his idea of "regeneration" as the replacement of playgrounds and mature nature areas with the sterile blocks and towering monoliths of the Canada Water Masterplan. Ada's Garden, for example, is under imminent threat from the Council who want to eliminate it to put a leisure centre where the wildlife area is located, in spite of 46 acres of land already ear-marked for development where it could easily be incorporated.

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