Life of Ada Salter: A Remarkable Lady from Raunds

Ada Brown was born on the 20th July 1866 to Samuel and Sarah Brown (nee Ekins). Samuel was what has been described as a middle class farmer. The family home was Thorpe House in Raunds. In 1867 Mary was born, while two years later Richard joined his two sisters with Henry arriving in 1869. The family was very much involved in the life of the Methodist Church and there is no doubt that this was to have far reaching effects on the young Ada.

Education for Ada was at the Ladies Boarding School in Goldington Road, Bedford. It should be remembered that at this period, young middle class girls were educated, not to prepare them for a career, but to groom them to become good wives and bring up their families. But things were changing. The family was Liberal politically and the Liberals were progressive in many ways. Ada recalled in later life that from her earliest years she had felt herself to be a pacifist. This meant she found herself with a dilemma. The principal industry at Raunds, like much of this part of the world, was the manufacture of boots and shoes. The trouble was that Raunds specialised in the manufacture of Army footwear, and continued in this area until the general decline of the industry.

Ada was involved in chapel life, and although she disagreed with much of the theology preached at her Sunday by Sunday, she loved the singing that had always been a feature of Methodism from its earliest days. Although she didn’t realise it at the time Methodism was to play an important part in her future life.

Hugh Price Hughes, a young man in training for the Methodist Ministry had married in 1873. In 1887, together with his young wife Katherine they had formed what became known as the ‘West London Mission’ (WLM). This part of London was an area where affluence and grinding poverty were very close neighbours. Many of the inhabitants had been evicted from their homes by the arrival of the railways. In 1868, with arrival of the Midland Railway in the St Pancras area, it was estimated that up to 10 000 people had been displaced.

Katherine had set up an organisation called the ‘Sisters of the People’. Sisters had to be ‘ladies of leisure, culture and refinement’. The role was to come and work with the poor people, particularly women.

In 1888, the Quakers, Bryant and May found themselves with the now famous strike on their hands, because of the appalling conditions the workers had to endure, with many developing what became known as ‘phossy jaw’.

News of the work of the WLM was known at Raunds and it seems that this was when Ada and her sisters started organising collections for the work. It also made Ada realise that she felt trapped by her life at Raunds. However, her life was to change in 1985 when her sister Mary announced that she was going to get married and to live in London.

The preceding years had seen tragedy visit the Brown family, first in 1890 when Ada’s younger sister Ethel died, followed a year later by the death of Ellen. Then in 1894 her brother, Richard was lost at sea. In June 1896, sister Mary married Robert Baldwin and set up home in Finchley, NW London. Now with her elder sister in a position to chaperone her, Ada had moved to London within months of her sister’s marriage. Now Ada was able to join the Sisters of the People and get involved with their work.

In 1889 the Great Dock Strike broke out and the Sisters came to help the families of the dockers. The Sisters were also getting involved with the Trade Unions. Meanwhile some of the projects that the WLM was starting were beginning to trouble some of the old guard of Methodism. Such was their influence that the Sisters started to fall apart to an extent that in July 1897 Ada resigned. The question now was what was she to do? One thing she was certain about was that she was not going back to live in Raunds!

The answer came in the form of the ‘Bermondsey Settlement’ (BS), a not too dis-similar organisation to the WLM. It had been set up in 1887 by another Methodist Minister, John Scott Lidgett. During her time with the WLM Ada had developed a talent for coping with unruly youngsters and she was putting this skill to good use within the BS. By now she was sharing a flat with a Liverpudlian, Jane Dale.

At this juncture we must introduce a young man who was to play an important part in Ada’s life. Alfred Salter had been born in 1873 to a family that appeared to be unsure where its religious allegiances lay, since his parents had been married in an Anglican Church but had baptized their children as Congregationalists. In later life they became members of the Plymouth Brethren. Alfred’s schooldays proved him not to be a brilliant student, his main interest being chemistry. As time passed he became drawn towards medicine and was fortunate in obtaining an Exhibition to the medical school of Guy’s Hospital. Alfred threw himself whole heartedly into his studies. At the same time he was becoming more politically aware and agnostic. Guy’s Hospital lay close to the docks and the awful slums that existed in Bermondsey. Whilst not neglecting his medical studies, he had also started taking an interest in the political and social life of the area. Such was his progress in his studies and work at the hospital that in 1897 he was appointed House Physician at Guy’s. This was followed by an invitation to become a bacteriologist at the famous Lister Institute.

His involvement with the people of Bermondsey led to his making the decision to apply to join the BS in order to be of service to the Community. Alfred moved into the BS, a year after Ada had started working for them.

Alfred heard about this young woman who was working wonders with the unruly children of the area and thought he would like to meet her. He did, and fell in love with her. At first sight one wonders what attracted them to each other, her Christian and pacifist, him a Socialist and agnostic. But work it did and increasingly they started working together at the Settlement. Ada prevailed upon Alfred to go and hear Dr Lidgett’s open air preaching at Southwark Park Corner. In time Alfred was reconverted to Christianity. The problem was that Lidgett’s philosophy did not chime with Salter’s. Together with Ada they found a group that mirrored their viewpoint in the Society of Friends at their Peckham Meeting.

In 1899, Ada’s Father died and Ada returned to Raunds. Alfred realised that Ada might stay to be with her mother and consequently decided to propose to her, all-be-it in a roundabout way. He wrote to her saying he had decided to ‘become a poor man’s doctor’ and would she join him? Ada was willing to join him and in September 1899 they announced their engagement followed in August of the following year by their wedding at the Methodist Church in Raunds with Ada’s brother Richard conducting the service.

Their first home was to be over a vacant shop which Alfred had spotted and then rented and which was also to become his first surgery. It was to be the start of a reformation not only for many people of Bermondsey, but also for the housing and facilities of the area. At the start of their married life Ada continued to work with the clubs that she had set up in the BS. Meanwhile, Alfred built up a medical practice only charging small fees, or in some cases, making no charge at all. In June 1902 their only child, Joyce was born (Joyce was her second name. Her first name was Ada and so was called Joyce to avoid confusion).

Before long Ada was able to resume her work with the BS, partly because she was able to engage a nanny for Joyce, a lady by the name of Agnes Coulthard. One of the projects that Ada set up was a Babies Clinic, something unheard of before. In 1906 the family moved into what was to become their permanent home at Stokes Road in Bermondsey. It had the rare advantage in that it had a small garden which they started to improve, both of them being lovers of the countryside.

Further involvement with politics and trade unions came in March 1905 when the boot makers from Raunds came out on strike and marched on London. Their grievance was not with their employers but with the Government which was encouraging competition amongst their contractors. It took the marchers four days to reach London. Ada coming from Raunds was more than willing to help find accommodation for the men. Large rallies took place and eventually the government agreed a minimum price for the footwear. Both Ada and Alfred had become members of the Liberal party with Ada becoming leader of the Rotherhithe Women’s Liberal Party.

In January 1906 the Liberal party won the General Election. They had been successful partly because of their pledge to support women’s suffrage. Once in power they had reneged on this commitment. The result was mass resignation from the Liberal Party by many women, including Ada. She, like many others, joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). This was quite a wrench for Ada. Her family had always been liberal and the BS was run by Liberals. The ILP had been formed in Bradford in 1893 with part of its manifesto being to give equal rights to women.

A new problem arose in that in 1903 Alfred had been elected to Bermondsey Borough Council (BBC). Four years later he resigned and formed a branch of the ILP in Bermondsey. In November 1909 Ada had been elected to the BBC as an ILP candidate.

The following year saw the tragic death of their daughter Joyce from scarlet fever. The child had survived two previous attacks but had succumbed to the third. Her death was to hang over Ada and Alfred for the rest of their lives. Despite the loss of Joyce, Ada continued her work with the Women’s Labour League (WWL) of which she had been a founder member from 1906. In 1908, the WWL request for affiliation to the Labour Party was granted. In October of the following year, Alfred lost his seat on the Council, but a month later to every one’s surprise, Ada won a seat, and in fact she had become the first Labour Party Councillor in London. By 1911 Ada was becoming more involved with WWL and was ultimately to become their President.

Sadly, in 1912, both Ada and Alfred lost their seats. Ada, however, was still working on her long term aims of improving the lot of the poor people of Bermondsey. This included setting up co-operatives, one of the first being a bakery, but her main focus was about trying to clear some of the slums in the Borough, all of which together with her other visions became known as her ‘beautification of Bermondsey’ project.

The outbreak of WW1 was not an easy time for both Ada and Alfred, being committed pacifists. Much of their effort during the conflict was in supporting Conscientious Objectors (COs). With her Methodist background and with much of Methodism supporting the war, Ada applied for membership of the Quakers in 1915. One of the practical things Ada and Alfred did was to buy, in 1916, Fairby Grange, a small holding with 20 acres of land in the village of Hartley in Kent. It was intended to provide a convalescent home, not only for the badly treated COs but where Alfred could send patients. The land also enabled Alfred to be able to set up a small co-operative farm.

The war over and in the following years both were to lose their seats. Things began to change. Ada was elected to the Board of Guardians for the local workhouse. She was appalled at the way the inmates were treated, so together with the other Guardians set about some sweeping changes.

In 1922, Labour won the General Election and the local Council, with Labour having overall control of Bermondsey with Ada becoming Mayor. Also importantly, Alfred was elected as MP for Bermondsey. Ada as Returning Officer was to announce that her husband had won the seat! Now Ada’s Beautification Committee was able to implement some of her plans. She introduced prizes for the best window boxes and gardens. Bermondsey began to look much greener. At the same time conditions for the workers was improving and an air of Civic Pride began to pervade the atmosphere.

1923 was to see the start of the demolition of some of the worst slums in the Borough with Ada in the forefront of a design called ‘Wilson Grove Cottages’. Fifty-four were built and opened in1928. Ada became chair of the Maternity and Child Welfare Committee, whilst Alfred was taking steps to confront the curse of TB which was rife in Bermondsey.

In 1932, the ILP had split from the Labour, which hurt them both. Also that year Ada was taken ill and remained so for several months. In 1935 Alfred was re-elected to his old seat. The previous year they had become involved with the Peace Pledge Union which had been started by the Rev Dick Sheppard.

In 1936 a new Health Centre opened which brought together all the clinics that the Salters had introduced in the previous years.

The prospect of another world war disheartened them both. In 1940 both of them became ill. In August of that year the German raids caused a great deal of damage to much of the Borough. At the time Ada had been trying to save much the green spaces she had brought into being. In October 1941 Ada resigned her seat on the LCC. Later that year she suffered several attacks of thrombosis which left her blind. Her death followed on December 4th 1942. She was cremated followed by a Quaker Service at Peckham Meeting House and then a Memorial Service at the Parish Church.

Alfred died on 24th August 1945 in Guy’s Hospital, the end of a remarkable partnership that had done so much for the people of Bermondsey.

Peter Butler
Wellingborough Meeting

Much of this article has drawn from two principal sources, namely

  • Ada Salter Pioneer of Ethical Socialism by Graham Taylor
  • Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter by Fenner Brockway