Ada Salter (1866 – 1942) was a social reformer environmentalist, pacifist and Quaker who became the first female Labour mayor.
Salter was born in Northamptonshire to Methodist parents who gave her a strong a strong sense of conviction during her childhood. It was in her youth that Ada went to girls’ club at the Bermondsey, in 1897, to help the women of East London. Many of the women at the girls’ club worked in factories and conditions were tough. Here Ada was employed as a Sister of People, helping young women improve their lives.
The Sisters of People were run by a group of Christian Socialists and it was in Bermondsey that Ada met her future husband, Alfred a doctor who believed in helping the poor. In 1900 they married and became members of the Society of Friends.
A Life in Politics
Ada became heavily involved in local politics and became president of the Women’s Liberal Party in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. But in 1906 she left the Liberal Party as it failed to honour its promise to give women the vote. She joined the Independent Labour Party and in the next 15 years grew her influence of campaigning for better standards of living for the working class and women’s rights.
In 1922 Ada was appointed Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, making her the first woman mayor in London and first Labour woman mayor in Britain. Upon being elected she chose not to wear the mayoral robes and had a Quakerly period of stillness before meetings.
Ada established a “Beautification Committee” and within a short period the streets were lined with trees. Some trees were paid for by the Gas Company as Ada told them the trees would help detect gas leaks. By the 1930s she had planted 7000 trees, decorated buildings with window-boxes, and filled all open spaces with flowers. Across the borough she organised music concerts, art competitions, games, sports and children’s playgrounds.
Finally, in 1934, when Labour took council control of London, Ada was able to spread her green socialist ideals beyond Berdmondsy and to every corner of the capital. The Green Belt was secured by law in 1938.
With World War II starting in 1939 was felt to be a catastrophe by Ada just as much as the 1914 war. During the First World War Ada had campaigned for peace and was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She also worked with Alfred for the No Conscription Fellowship. During the second world war Ada and Alfred were bombed out of their home in Storks Road after refusing to leave Bermondsey.
Ada died aged 76, cared for by her sisters, in 1942. She had a Quaker funeral and a memorial service at her parish church.
The Friends’ Quarterly Examiner wrote, ‘Socialism in action; that is what she was’.
A garden, overlooking a lake, designed and supervised by Ada herself, was opened in 1936 within Southwark Park. Locals soon called it the ‘Ada Salter Garden’ and in 1943 the name was formally recognised.
An annual lecture named in honour of both Ada and Alfred is given by the Quaker Socialist Society. This is the successor to the Socialist Quaker Society, to which the couple belonged.
The Salter statues are a local tourist attraction in Rotherhithe. At first there was only a bronze statue of Alfred, erected in 1991, but when it was stolen by metal-thieves in November 2011, there was a campaign to erect statues to both Ada and Alfred, and this raised £120,000.
Ada’s statue was only the 15th public statue in London to a woman.