Doctor Alfred Salter
Person Male Born 16/6/1873 Died 24/8/1945
Doctor and politician. Born at 23 South Street, Greenwich. Following his Quaker principles, he gave up a potentially brilliant medical career in order to tend the sick and needy in Bermondsey. He and his wife Ada moved into the slums in order to win the trust of the people, and this may have contributed to the early death of their daughter Joyce, from a particularly virulent strain of scarlet fever. In 1922 he became Labour M.P. for Bermondsey West. Died in Guy's Hospital. The photograph is of him and his daughter.
At I was literally on my way we found this old 8-minute film of "Some activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council".
The SE16 statue group has had two information panels over the years. We transcribed them both, as follows:
Dr Salters Daydream
Dr. Alfred Salter was born in 1873 in Greenwich and started at the Guys Hospital in 1889. He visited homes in Bermondsey and was deeply impressed by the poverty and appalling housing conditions.
He took up residence in the Bermondsey Settlement in 1896 established a dividing insurance society which gave allowance to members during ill health and started a men's adult school on Sunday mornings. He upset his professional colleagues by charging only sixpence fpr medical consultations. Shortly afterwards he met Ada Brown and they were married.
His daughter Joyce was born in June 1902 and Dr Salter was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council as a Liberal Whip and became a JP. By way of further proof of the sincerity of their commitment to the people of Bermondsey, Joyce was educated locally and not elsewhere. Later he resigned from the Liberals and joined the independent Labour Party and formed with fourteen others the Socialist Movement of Bermondsey. At this point the Salter's only child Joyce caught scarlet fever for the third time and died aged 8 in June 1910.
This personal tragedy which might have been averted had Joyce been educated elsewhere increased their commitment to the area and its people.
The Salters bought Fanby Grange in Kent and turned it into a convalescent home for Bermondsey patients. Dr Salter became MP for Bermondsey in 1922, the result being announced by London's first woman mayor Ada Salter. Mrs Salter aimed to have trees in every street and in two years 9000 trees were planted. The Daily Telegraph at the time described "an object lesson in what can be done to beautify even the poorest neighbourhood" Through Dr Salter's efforts play facilities were established at Long Lane at Tooley Street and at Tanner Street (on the site of the old Bermondsey Workhouse).
He prepared ambitious plans to replace 180 year old tenements with lower density developments such as Wilson Grove (formerly Salisbury Street) which can still be seen today. At Salisbury Street 1035 people lived in only 155 homes, but after the Labour victory in the election of 1924, rapid progress was made. It was set back by the incoming Conservative administration later in 1924, The new Minister of Health refused permission for the Salisbury Street plan for the second time saying that some of the land must be sold for commercial purposes.
Salter successfully campaigned for a solarium to treat tuberculosis sufferers of which there were hundreds in Bermondsey. Children were even sent to recuperate in Switzerland, as the fresh mountain air aided their recovery. The results speak for themselves. Between 1911 and 1935 the infant mortality rate fell from 160 to 69 and in 1935 when 1487 babies were born not one mother died in childbirth.
2018: The information board had been replaced, with new text:
Dr Salter’s Daydream
One was a youth worker whose social clubs transformed the lives of Bermondsey’s toughest working girls. The other was a doctor who treated his poorest patients without charge. Together, they overcame personal tragedy to lead a revolution. Ada and Alfred Salter wee legendary, and beloved, figures in Bermondsey. They were also famous nationally, and each has a separate entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Ada Brown (1866-1942) was born in Northamptonshire. At 30, she left her well-off home in Raunds to do social work in the London slums as a Methodist ‘Sister of the People’. Alfred Salter (1873-1945), born in Greenwich and reckoned the most brilliant student Guy’s Hospital ever produced, was a bacteriologist with a great career ahead of him when in 1898, also stirred by social conscience, he arrived at the Bermondsey Settlement where Ada was working. In 1900 the two married, became Quakers, had a daughter, Joyce, were active in the Liberal Party and then the ILP (Independent Labour Party). They dedicated their lives to the impoverished people of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe.
Ada’s concern for working women led to her election in 1909 as the first woman councillor in Bermondsey and first Labour woman councillor in London. To counter dire conditions in some local factories Ada recruited women to trade unions. This bore fruit during the ‘Bermondsey Uprising’ of 1911 when thousands of women went on strike. After Ada organised food supplies for their starving families, she was honoured by the trade union movement and in 1914 elected National President of the Women’s Labour League.
Alfred believed the slums would never improve without political reform and set his sights on becoming MP. However, during World War One he and Ada, as pacifists, endured fierce hostility, even from stone-throwing mobs, especially after he wrote a pamphlet against the war acclaimed all over the world. But by 1922, now admired for his anti-war principles, he was elected MP for Bermondsey and, except for one year, remained MP until his death.
In the same year Ada was elected (at a time when borough mayors had considerable power) the first woman mayor in London and first Labour woman mayor in Britain. She and Alfred launched what was later called the ‘Bermondsey Revolution’, an experiment in municipal government that attracted attention throughout Europe.
Alfred promoted free medical treatment using modern methods: a health centre, a solarium for TB sufferers, and educational films about hygiene shown from vans on street corners. By 1935 infant mortality had fallen from 150 to 69 per year, and not one mother died in childbirth. This was his ‘NHS before the NHS’.
Meanwhile, Ada’s ‘Beautification Committee’ transformed the slums. She planted 9000 trees, offered prizes for best window boxes or gardens and filled all public spaces with playgrounds, musical events and sports. She was a ‘Green before the Greens’. The Daily telegraph said Ada’s work was “an object lesson in what can be done to beautify even the poorest neighbourhood”. In 1931 Ada was elected Chair of the National Gardens Guild, and in 1934 was deployed by the LCC to beautify all of London and establish London’s Green Belt.
The Salters destroyed the worst of Bermondsey’s slums, Alfred pushed through a vast slum-clearance programme admired all over the country, while Ada was in charge of designing the model council houses still to be seen in Wilson Grove.
The Salter Statues
The Salters’ lives were marred by a great personal tragedy. In 1910 their only child, Joyce, aged 8, died from scarlet fever. To win trust, and to avoid privilege, they had chosen to live amidst the disease-ridden slums and have their daughter educated locally, but the cost proved high. Though Joyce’s death bonded the Salters for ever with the people of Bermondsey, they were inconsolable.