Between the Wars – Alf & Ada Salter of Bermondsey

When I read the broadcaster Danny Baker’s autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve, last year, I discovered that we had both lived in the same council-owned tower block in south east London, Maydew House, albeit not at the same time. At least, I don’t think so. I’m sure that I would have recognised him in the lift.

view from maydewThe view from my flat

I loved living in Bermondsey. The area around Rotherhithe and Surrey Docks is full of history and most of the people who live around there are lovely. After years of struggling to find an affordable home in north London, and as a young person without a family, I liked living in a tower block too. Someone came to do a survey of tenants once and went away shaking his head in disbelief as I told him how great it was to live way above the noise and dirt of the city, with the south London railway system as my own personal train set and a well-built, light, warm, airy flat about ten minutes walk from Tower Bridge and the City. Well, it was great when the lifts were working anyway.


Bermondsey slums, early 20th century

That part of London was badly bombed during the Second World War and before that had been an area of great hardship and social deprivation. People lived in unhealthy, dilapidated slum dwellings and the Dockers’ Shelter – where men stood waiting to be taken on for a day’s work – was still on the corner of Redriff Road when I lived there. It was knocked down when the area was redeveloped to be replaced by a bog-standard shopping centre with a very big Tesco, called “Surrey Quays.”

There were memorials all around the area to Dr. Alfred Salter and his wife, Ada, Christian Socialists (Quakers), who believed that they had been called to work in the Bermondsey slums. Members of the Peace Pledge Union and founders of the Socialist Medical Association – which began the campaign for a National Health Service – they worked hard to improve the lives of the families of south east London before the Second World War. Alf became involved in politics and was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council in 1903 and London County Council in 1906. The death of their 8-year-old daughter Joyce from scarlet fever only reinforced their commitment to try to help other people in the area, especially children, lead better, healthier lives. As a GP, Salter could have afforded to send Joyce to a different school but he never wavered in his commitment to equality, sending her to Keeton’s Road School where infectious diseases were rife.

lf & Joyce

After the First World War, Alf Salter was the Labour candidate for Bermondsey in the General Election but lost to the sitting MP, a Liberal. He and Ada both served on the LCC for many years and Ada was the first woman mayor of Bermondsey. Alf was eventually elected as MP for Bermondsey in 1922 and he remained in Parliament until he stood down because of poor health before the 1945 election. Their work is described in detail in a fascinating book, Bermondsey Story, written by another Christian Socialist, Fenner Brockway, whom I was privileged to see giving a speech when he was nearly 100-years-old.

Alf with Joyce

Among the things that stood out for me though were the Beautification Committee which Ada chaired for eleven years from 1923. It’s agenda was “Fresh Air and Fun.” Meanwhile Alf opened a health centre, where local children were given free “sun-ray” treatment to combat diseases such as rickets – a disease which is returning to Britain according to a news item that I read recently. From 1924 Bermondsey council reserved six places each year in a pioneering Sun Clinic at Leysin in the Swiss Alps. Five of the first six patients sent there went on to make a full recovery and many local people benefited from the treatment.

Nothing was too good for the people of Bermondsey, according to the Salters, and quite right too. All the green spaces, the beautifully planted up flower beds and pleasant parks, were down to the Salters and people like them. We live in less idealistic times where the bottom line of profit (for some) is everything and I was reminded of the work of the Salters when I read about Shelter’s campaign to help the 80,000 children who will be homeless this Christmas. Britain is one of the wealthiest nations on earth but it is also one of the most unequal.

AdaAda Salter