“Fresh Air & Fun”: Ada Salter and the Beautification of Bermondsey

Ada Salter

London is a city of great surprises and has many hidden corners and almost unknown treasures. I thought I knew it fairly well but there are always surprises and I’ve just found two of them in the same patch.  Did you know, because I certainly didn’t,  that  the remains of one of Edward III’s favourite country houses still survive on the banks of the Thames?   Perhaps the reason I didn’t know it is because it’s in a district which long had a reputation for slums and poverty, and being more than a bit rough around the edges.

The remains of Edward III’s Manor House on Bermondsey Wall, David Marsh May 2017

Of course over recent years nowhere in London is safe from gentrification and this area is no exception.  A new tube station and proximity to central London – that’s an understatement since its within a few minutes walk of Tower Bridge – have led to massive amounts of redevelopment.  So I finally corrected my ignorance of Bermondsey  by going on a guided London walk with Sue McCarthy of Capital Walks. [Highly recommended – and no she’s not paying me to say that!]  You can read a short photo report of what the walk covers here.

The view from Ada’s statue which stands just across the road from Edward III’s manor house.

It focussed on the life and work of Ada Salter, a pioneer of ethical Socialism  who was elected the first woman mayor in London, and first Labour woman mayor in Britain.  Sue’s commentary inspired me to go and find out more about Ada Salter’s radical – and successful – campaign to improve health and housing, provide gardens and beautify Bermondsey.

The southern bank of the Thames from Tower Bridge towards Rotherhithe. The manor house ruins are in the small green square on the riverbank just to the right of centre.



Ada’s radicalism might be a bit surprising given that she was born into a middle class farming family  in Northamptonshire  in 1866.  Her parents were Methodists and Liberals but by the time she reached adulthood she became a pacifist and a supporter of women’s rights and, through the Methodist church, a supporter of Hugh and Katherine Price Hughes  ‘Social Christianity’ and its West London Mission. She also got involved in the growing labour movement.

The Bermondsey Settlement,  built in 1892 the settlement remained open until 1967 but was demolished in 1969

In 1896 she moved to London to work with the Hughes  in the slums of central London, as part of a 40 strong group called the Sisters of the People. They ran a crèche, a day nursery, a convalescent home and did ‘rescue work’ with women driven into prostitution. They also ran youth clubs and Ada found that she had a natural skill at working with tough adolescents.   By the following year she started running clubs at the Bermondsey Settlement which had been founded by John Scott Lidgett,  “the most famous Methodist since Wesley” who was to go on to be vice-chancellor of London University. He was also  leader of London’s Progressive Party, a coalition of Socialists and Liberals which vied for control of London County Council and the inner London boroughs within its borders.

Alfred with Joyce

It was at the Settlement two years later  that she met a young doctor, named Alfred Salter who was a socialist, pacifist and teetotaler.  They fell in love and he renounced his ambitions to be a Harley Street consultant and instead decided to settle and practice as “a poor man’s doctor” in Bermondsey.  Ada and Alfred married in 1900 and in 1902 their daughter Joyce was born.

They began attending Quaker Meetings and put their faith into action. Alfred had opened  a surgery [where the new Bermondsey tube station now stands] , often treating his patients for nothing. It soon expanded as he took on equally idealistic partners and by 1922 was one of the largest practices in Britain with more than 10,000 patients.  They moved to a house in Storks Road in 1906 where Ada created a green oasis in the 66′ x 27′ garden. It was hard work she was later to recount in an interview with The Lady, and took her years to discover that Virginia Creeper and Clematis cope with pollution better than ivy and that  while she couldn’t grow roses, peonies or delphiniums such stalwart Victorian bedding plants as  heliotrope, lobelia, verbena and geraniums would thrive.

Dr Salter canvassing in 1909 Bermondsey by-election.
llustrated London News  October 23, 1909

Scott Lidgett persuaded Alfred to become active in ‘formal’ politics and he was elected as a Liberal/Progressive councillor in 1903.  However Ada  joined the Independent Labour Party – the ILP – and was getting very involved in women’s issues. As so often she convinced him that he was mistaken and in  1908 together they formed a local branch of the ILP. He fought and lost the Bermondsey parliamentary by-election that year but at the local elections the following month Ada made history.

Ada Salter from Southwark Local History Library and Archive

She was elected as the first woman councillor in Bermondsey, first Labour councillor in Bermondsey and first Labour woman councillor in London.

Tragedy struck the couple in 1910 when Joyce caught scarlet fever and died.  Their response was not just to  grieve but also to act: they would clear the slums that harboured epidemic diseases and led to high infant mortality. It looked an impossible task given that Ada was a lone ILP voice on Bermondsey council. But events played into the Salters’ hands.

Bermondsey was a highly industrialised area with lots of factories and workshops, and it was the home of several well known biscuit and jam manufactories which had a mainly female workforce. Trade Unions were in their infancy and there were no welfare benefits so, during a transport strike in 1911, unscrupulous employers  assumed they could make increased demands on their workforce assuming the wives of strikers would accept for fear of hunger.  They were wrong.

Ada and colleagues had been organizing and recruiting for the National Federation of Women Workers and thousands walked out and  marched through Bermondsey chanting slogans, leaving 21 factories near empty – eighteen of which would subsequently introduce pay rises. Ada also set up food banks for the strikers. It became known as the  ‘Bermondsey uprising’ and led to her becoming nationally well-known and elected president of the Women’s Labour League. High on the WWL policy list were new cottage style houses with gardens, and the provision of public baths, public laundries and communal kitchens to make life easier for women, as well as protection for green spaces around the capital. It was just what was needed in Bermondsey one of the most densely populated parts of the capital. Only 1300 acres in extent, 400 of which were docks and warehousing, with the rest shared by industry and cramped housing. There were less than 9 acres of open space.

At council level Ada was frozen out by the two main parties and defeated at the next election. Although the First World War was difficult for the couple given their pacifist views once it was over the ILP flourished, and she regained her council seat in 1919.  In 1922 Alfred was elected to parliament and Ada was elected mayor. This made her the first woman mayor in London, the first Labour woman mayor in Britain and the first married woman in the country ever to become a mayor.  This was to lead not to another “Bermondsey uprising” but a  ‘Bermondsey revolution’.

Ada planting a Tree of Heaven at the opening of the Tanner Street playground, May 1929, image from Lebas, “Making of a Socialist Arcadia, Garden History” 1999

the opening words of the Bermondsey Labour Party’s address to local electors in November 1922. Image from Muncipal Dreams

The revolution  didn’t happen immediately because Labour did not command a majority on the council until 1921, but she secured enough support to get a Beautification Committee established  in time for a first meeting in January 1920.  It became  the frontline of the revolution and with the slogan of “Fresh air and fun”  aimed not just at tree planting but a whole range of  other ways of bringing nature to the people as well as radically improving housing  and living conditions, lifting morale and improving health, increasing self-respect. Work was as far as possible done with local unemployed labour and with advice from the London Gardens Guild of which Ada was a member.  Of course the trees they chose had to be as tough as old boots to deal with the filthy air so it was planes, limes, poplars, acacias and her favourite, ailanthus  which predominated.

Storks Road, 1935 © Southwark Local History Library and Archive

376 trees were planted the first year alone and after Labour took control of the council in 1921  things really started to happen.  By 1927 over 6000 trees had been planted in Bermondsey’s streets, and the final tally before the war started reached  over 9000 with 70  of the borough’s 80 miles tree-lined.

Ada wrote in Guild Gardener in March 1927 : “There is nothing more beautiful than trees; they act as  screen to eyesores…and beautify and dignify the monotonous streets of dingy houses.”

She put her money where her mouth was too. She and Alfred had bought Fairby Grange in Kent in 1917 for use as a convalescent home for new mothers and their babies: the first such home in the country. It had extensive well-planted grounds stretching to over 20 acres  and they opened a nursery there which provided many of the trees and other plants planted in Bermondsey, whilst a municipal shop sold its surplus fruit and veg. The Salters gave Fairby to Bermondsey Council in 1922, but it was sold off in 1955 and is now a care home.

St James Churchyard where thousands of tulips were planted
Southwark Local History Library and Archive

But it wasn’t just trees.  She appointed W.H.Johns, a 38 yr old Cornishman who had trained at Kew, and gained  experience in both managing gardens and teaching about them, as the borough’s Superintendent  of Gardens in 1923.  He was asked to identify any  small areas of waste ground that could be taken over and planted.  Working with the local Gardens Guild he helped organize two flower shows a year   and he persauded the library service to put gardening advice leaflets inside library books, and gave practical lectures.

Front garden of the TB Clinic, designed by Johns anon, c.1929. From Lebas “The Making of a Socilaist Arcadia” in Garden History 1999

Johns oversaw the planting of tens of thousands of shrubs and flowering plants to span the whole season and cope with the appallingly polluted growing conditions. He experimented and made the surprising discovery that  dahlias did really well, so he began hybridizing and eventually introduced a new strain which he called Coltness in a wide range of colours.  The RHS confirmed that he could rename Coltness  Salmon  as Bermondsey Gem and Coltness Yellow as Rotherhithe Gem.  Sadly I can’t find any trace of them as separate varities and they not listed by the National Collection, although Coltness mixes are widely available.

The borough organised prizes  for the best windowboxes and gardens  which caught the public imagination and in 1937 Bermondsey residents must have shocked the rest of London by winning four  All-London Gardens Competition awards for best front garden, roof garden, balcony garden and window boxes.

St James Churchyard where thousands of tulips were planted, photo 1931
Southwark Local History Library and Archive

The opening of the joy slide.   Southwark Local History Library and Archive

She continued the work of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association which had been converting churchyards into gardens and children’s playgrounds from its foundation in 1882. One of the first was the yard around  St John’s in Bermondsey taken over in 1882, and it was closely followed by nearby St Mary Magdalenes in 1883 and St James’s  in 1886.

Most famously  in 1921 she persuaded Arthur Carr, the chair of Peek Frean the biscuit maker and a large local employer to donate money for the Joy Slide in the grounds of St James. It survived the war but was finally damaged by fire and demolished in the 1980s, although there is a campaign to bring it back.


Flowerbeds in St Magdalen’s Churchyard. Photo by Reginaldd Malby c1923 taken from Lebas, Making of a Socilaist Arcadia in Garden History 1999

But there was also an emphasis on providing space for sports and music within parks, so that opportunities for exercise and relaxation – “any lawful measure which can promote healthful exercise and bodily development” – were available to everyone. Bermondsey was soon winning all-London prizes for  its sports teams too.  A Bermondsey choir was formed, then a municipal orchestra while bands regularly played in open spaces.

All this was achieved on a shoestring. The Beautification Department only employed 36 people in 1926, with an additional 8 fulltime gardeners. Ada also campaigned and raise funds from anywhere and everywhere she could to supplement what could be raised locally from the rates.

The Observer 3rd May 1931

The effect was felt not just locally but nationally and internationally The Observer wrote in 1931 “Outside the Royal Parks it would be difficult to find anywhere such masses of colour… when the tulips and daffodils are over they will be followed by armies of dahlias, geraniums and antirrhinums.” Bermondsey “does not fear to spend money out of its slender resources to buy flowers and flowering plants… it has a sense of collective responsibility for abolishing ugliness and for cultivating beauty.”

The Evening Standard wrote that Bermondsey was “the most optimistic place in London.. because of the flowers… Flowers in Bermondsey are not a decoration but a symbol.” Even the Daily Telegraph praised Bermondsey as “an object lesson in what can be done to beautify even the poorest neighbourhoods.”   Its nearly 9 acres of public open space became model gardens and playgrounds and as a result Mr Johns found himself conducting visiting dignitaries and gardeners around the borough including many from abroad. According to Graham Taylor, Ada’s biographer, over 200 towns across western Europe adopted her ideas and films of the streets and gardens were shown all over the world.

An area of Southwark Park [which was run by the LCC not Bermondsey]  was converted into a rose garden with a  pergola and seats overlooking the lake in 1936 and was referred to as ‘Mrs Salter’s Garden’ even during her lifetime and  was  formally dedicated to her memory after her death in 1942.

The Dolphin Fountain in the churchyard of St John Horsleydown, image from Lebas, Making of a Socilalist Arcadia, Garden History 1999

But this was merely part of her efforts to improve life for the people of Bermondsey, and I’ll do another post about her plans for  “greener” housing soon.

For more information on Ada and Alfred Salter I’d recommend you look at Graham Taylor’s biography : Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism [2016],  John Boughton’s excellent blog Municipal Dreams. which celebrates the efforts and achievements of our early municipal reformers including the Salters, and Elizabeth Lebas’s detailed article “The Making of a Socialist Arcadia” in Garden History, vol 27 (2) 1999.



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