Last weekend Bermondsey once again celebrated the anniversary of the birth of Ada Salter. The social reformer, politician and environmentalist was the first female councillor to be elected in Bermondsey in 1909 and in 1920 was elected mayor of the area, making her the first female mayor in the capital. Yet outside her adopted home of Southwark, Ada has not always attracted the attention she deserves, writes Becky Morton…
Historian Graham Taylor decided to write a biography of Ada after finding the only history book documenting her work in any detail was lacking. A biography of her husband Alfred Salter, written in 1949, mentioned his wife but paid little attention to her own achievements.
“At that time it was customary not to give women as much prominence. I wanted to rectify that,” Taylor said.
Ada was born in Northamptonshire in 1866 but it was when she moved to Bermondsey at the age of 31 that she made a name for herself. She insisted on living amongst the poor in the slums of the borough, which were amongst the worst in London.
She soon progressed in politics to become Bermondsey’s first female councillor in 1909 and went on to become a key figure in the Bermondsey Uprising. The strike saw thousands of women march against appalling pay and working conditions, leaving 21 factories near empty, with eighteen subsequently introducing pay rises.
“The conditions in factories were terrible,” Taylor said. “In factories making glass jars for jam it was all female workers. The jars used to explode and blind the women. It wasn’t uncommon for workers to have their fingers and thumbs chopped off.”
But perhaps Ada’s best-known legacy is her beautification campaign which brought trees, parks and playgrounds to the streets of Bermondsey.
“She wanted to make the slums she could not get knocked down beautiful,” Taylor explained. “She believed that if people had beautiful surroundings they could become decent, beautiful people. She felt living in the slums was degrading and made people lose their self-respect.”
Taylor now lives in Cherry Garden Street in Bermondsey, where Ada herself lived a century ago, and the area still bears the imprint of her work.
“Southwark remains one of the greenest boroughs in London,” he said. “You can still see the council flats, trees and playgrounds she left behind. She made sure flats had window boxes on the balconies and gardens front and back – those flats have survived.”
“To have a concern for the environment in the 1920s was way ahead of her time,” he continued. “She was a pioneer. In many ways, she prefigured the green movement.”
In recent decades, the rise of the environmental and women’s movement have brought Ada to greater prominence.
After a statue of her husband Alfred was stolen from Bermondsey there was a campaign to have it replaced – but this time alongside a statue of his wife. The campaign raised £120,000 and in 2014 the two statues were unveiled. Ada’s statue was the first of a female politician to be erected in London. At the time it was built there were only fourteen statues of famous women in the capital but over 300 of men.
This recognition was long overdue, Taylor argues.
“Alfred and Ada worked as a team. But Ada was perhaps even more important than her husband,” he said. “In reality he was quite isolated because he was a pacifist and a bit of a rebel so he achieved very little in parliament. Ada was able to do more and her legacy lives on today.