Posted on 18th November 2019
The Tree of Heaven in Bermondsey’s Children’s Playground is planted above the buried ashes of Quakers Ada and Alfred Salter.
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 as a young adult that she went to girls’ club at Bermondsey, in 1897, to help the young women of south-east London. Many of the women at the girls’ club worked in factories and conditions were tough.
Ada Meets Alfred
Ada was employed as a Sister of the People, which was run by a group of Christian Socialists in London. It was in Bermondsey that Ada met her future husband, Alfred (1873 – 1945), a medical doctor who believed in helping the poor. In 1900 they married, became members of the Society of Friends and went on to have a daughter named Joyce.
The Beautification of Bermondsey
Salter 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 both better standards of living for the working class of London and women’s rights.
Salter 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.
In her position as mayor, Salter 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 (which was stretching the truth).
By the 1930s she had organised the planting of 7,000 trees, some of which were the Tree of Heaven (Latin name – Ailanthus altissima). The Tree of Heaven, native to China, was chosen as it has an ability to thrive in difficult urban environments.
Buildings had window-boxes and open spaces were filled with flowers. Across the borough Salter organised music concerts, art competitions, games, sports and children’s playgrounds.
Finally, in 1934, when Labour took council control of London, Salter was able to spread her green socialist ideals beyond Berdmondsy and to every corner of the capital. The Green Belt, which she championed, was secured by law in 1938.
With World War II starting in 1939, Salter was as devastated by a return to global violence just as much as she had been in the First World War (1914 – 1918).
During the First World War Salter 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, the Salters 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, as well as their daughter Joyce and the family cat.
Ada’s statue was only the 15th public statue in London to a woman.