Alfred & Ada Salter

I first heard of Ada & Alfred Salter some years ago. Well, back in 2008 at least, when I happened upon the Dr. Salter’s Daydream statues whilst out for a walk exploring Bermondsey and Rotherhithe in south east London.

For those unfamiliar with London, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe are the areas east of Tower Bridge, on the south of the river. They remain one of my favourite parts of London – yes, it’s stupidly expensive, like all of the capital, but despite its fairly close proximity to the financial district of Docklands, it’s still overlooked by many and has just about avoided total soul-destroying gentrification.

There are plenty of late 80s/early 90s yuppie warehouse conversions and nasty new-build developments, many of which haven’t dated well, but the area retains plenty of Victorian buildings. More importantly, it still feels like one of the most interesting parts of London because it hasn’t been entirely socially cleansed of working class people.

Gentrification is slowly rapidly creeping out from London Bridge, infecting more and more of Bermondsey, but there’s still so so much history to be seen here, over in especially in Rotherhithe. Everything from the Mayflower and colonialism links, to Charles Dickens settings and tales of river pirates and hangings.

Anyhow, this is part of what I wrote on my (previous, long-since gone) blog back in 2008 after a wander:

By lunchtime yesterday I felt in need of a break from staring at the computer screen, so decided to go for a little stroll. The clouds threatened rain, but it didn’t materialise — just as well, as my little stroll turned into a six mile walk.

I headed east from London Bridge station and followed the river until the Rotherhithe tunnel, at which point I planned to catch a bus home. I didn’t have any luck finding a bus though, and in the end I walked home from there.

Anyway, along the way I happened upon Dr. Salter’s Daydream, a sculpture to commemorate local doctor, politician, reformer and peace campaigner Dr. Alfred Salter. I’d not heard of him before, but he sounds like quite a remarkable man – among his achievements was setting up a community health centre 20 years before the National Health Service was founded.

I reproduced the text about Dr. Salter from the nearby plaque, with some photos of the sculptures. To be honest, although impressed by Mr. Salter’s achievements, I didn’t think that much more about it at the time.

The sculpture Dr. Salter’s Daydream that I photographed depicted not just Dr. Salter sat on a bench, but also his young daughter (to whom he’s waving) and her cat.

What made Alfred Salter particularly remarkable was that, unlike most of his contemporaries, rather than practice medicine in a poor area whilst living in a wealthier suburb, Dr. Salter and his wife Ada chose to live amongst the community they served.

Sadly, as a result of their dedication, their daughter Joyce died of scarlet fever at the age of 8. Hence the stature of Alfred taking a moment to wave to his departed child (and her cat).

The couple were naturally heartbroken at the loss of their only child, but continued to live in the area and campaign for the community.

Reading a little more at home in 2008, I discovered that Ada Salter, Dr. Alfred Salter’s wife – whose pain must have been just as great – was just as remarkable as her husband.

Ada Salter was, among other things, a social reformer, pacifist, one of the first women councillors in London, the first woman mayor in London and the first Labour woman mayor in the British Isles.

What a remarkable woman and remarkable man.

And that was where I left it in 2008, a blog post about a stroll along the river, and an insight into a couple of admirable, good people.

Feedback on my 2008 Salters post

Over the months and years, that blog post collected some fascinating comments, largely from people like me that had stumbled across Dr. Salter’s Daydream in Rotherhithe and wanted to know more.

However, to my surprise and delight, the commenters also included Diana Gorvin (the artist behind the sculpture of Dr. Salter’s Daydream), and then a few individuals that had actually known the Salters, and even relatives of the Salters themselves!

Later, a researcher making a documentary about the Salters for the BBC got in touch (more of that in a moment…). The comments section of my uninformed little blog post ended up being an epicentre of knowledgeable of people discussing the Salters in Bermondsey!

A new blog

Life and family soon overtook me, and eventually my old blog was relegated to the realm of Geocities and Friends Reunited. Thankfully I backed-up the old blog post on the subject, and some years later, continuing my high regard for the Salters, and the interesting developments during the intervening years, I thought the subject well with revisiting/updating.

Bermondsey Story

Most of the above took place in 2008/2009. By chance in 2010 I happened upon a book about Alfred Salter in a charity shop: Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter (published 1995, now out of print). Well worth tracking down a copy.

The Secret History of Our Streets

It turns our the researcher who contacted me was working on a BBC TV series called The Secret History of Our Streets. It’s wonderful series in which each episode focussed on a particular street, and examined its occupants from construction to the present day. (I thought the episode about Camberwell Grove was the best, but every street featured had a fascinating history). Reverdy Road was the subject of one programme.