the men who said no


Ada SalterStatue of Ada Salter Bermondsey, London

Ada Salter was one of the women in the No Conscription Fellowship who kept the office functioning effectively during the war when most of the male staff were imprisoned as COs. She, along with Violet Tillard, was in charge of the maintenance department, looking after the families of the imprisoned COs by co-ordinating the work of local NCF branches. Fenner Brockway wrote that from the beginning of the struggle the NCF ‘had assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the dependents of COs, the provision of recuperative treatment, and the finding of employment: Mrs Salter had been treasurer of the Maintenance Committee.’

When the First World War began, Ada Salter was already a well-known figure in the socialist/trade union movement and much loved in Bermondsey for the work she and her husband Alfred did there.

Born in 1866 in Raunds,Northamptonshire,she moved to London in 1896. She enlisted as a Sister of the People, an organisation set up to work for social improvement in the slums. She visited the worst slums in Soho, Kings Cross and Bermondsey, sometimes on her own - facing the risk of disease, criminals, and drunken husbands. She turned out to have a genius for running social clubs.
In 1898 she met Alfred Salter at the Bermondsey Settlement. She is described as having ‘a sweetness, a serenity and a selflessness which won him completely’, and they married in 1900. They both joined the Society of Friends (Quakers). He set up a medical practice in Bermondsey, where their only child Joyce was born in June 1902. The enclosed yard of their house was turned into a garden retreat, a ‘green parlour’ for their daughter.

Ada was interested in the socialism of the Independent Labour Party. She joined a women-only sewing circle, along with her best friend Eveline Lowe, in central London, run by Margaret MacDonald. Every Wednesday they discussed issues of concern such as conditions for working women, social housing, votes for women. In 1908 she and Alfred set up the Bermondsey ILP branch and in 1909 she created history by becoming the first woman councillor in Bermondsey, the first Labour councillor in Bermondsey, and the first Labour woman councillor in London.

Their daughter Joyce caught scarlet fever and in 1910,tragically died. They had been committed to their socialist beliefs and sent her to the local school with all the poor children of the neighbourhood. Joyce was adored throughout Bermondsey as ‘our little ray of sunshine’, and crowds stood silent outside the house till midnight on the eve of her death. ‘There was some comment the next morning because the blinds were not drawn. “She was sunshine,” said Mrs Salter. “Why should we shut out sunshine?” Joyce, with her cat, is remembered with Ada and Alfred together today in a group of statues beside the Thames in London. Ada is herself commemorated with a rose garden in her name in the middle of Southwark Park. This garden, planned as an Old English Garden, was her scheme to add beauty, to give the users surroundings which were ‘rich in colour and pleasing in design.’

Ada became the co-founder of the Women’s Labour League in 1906. When the Bermondsey strike of workers took place in 1911 she organised help for the families through food relief points throughout the district, and did the same in the dock strike of 1912 and the General Strike of 1926. By 1914 she was National President of the Women’s Labour League, and known all over the country.
When the war began in 1914 she devoted many hours to peace work, with the No Conscription Fellowship, the Independent Labour Party and the Women’s International League. Even before the war she had warned about foreign policy, in a speech in Birmingham in 1912:
“we are tired of wars brought about by groups of those who hold concessions in Africa and other lands. We want, not new battleships, but a new policy. All questions of our foreign relations should not be in the hands of one man.” (the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey).

As committed pacifists she and her husband suffered insults, stone throwing mobs attacking their home, and the loss of some friendships. They had recently acquired a house in Kent, Fairby Grange, to use for the good of the community and turned it now into a convalescent home for conscientious objectors who had been badly treated in prison. Brockway says ‘They were a mixed and difficult family. A few were seriously ill, including men who had contracted tuberculosis; most required to be built up again physically and to be readjusted psychologically after two or three years in prison.’ Ada paid regular visits of two or three days (and Alfred came one afternoon a week to support them both medically and emotionally).

At the end of the war she represented the British section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at meetings in Zurich and Vienna. She again threw open her home, this time to starving Austrian women and children.
The Salters’ political campaigning came to fruition in 1922 when Alfred was elected as an MP, and Ada became the first woman mayor in Bermondsey - which made her the first woman mayor in London, and the first Labour woman mayor in Britain. They both campaigned for a transformation in Bermondsey - Alfred in health, and Ada in conditions of housing and the neighbourhood. Bermondsey had more women councillors than any other area, and they drew on the policies of the Women’s Labour League. While slum clearance was planned and implemented, energy was put into ‘beautification’ of the neighbourhood. They transformed the area, planting over 9000 trees, promoting window boxes, encouraging playgrounds, sports or music in local parks. The area was so built up there were no open spaces, apart from Southwark Park - but they managed to get permission to use the churchyards, transforming them into beds of flowers. ‘Every odd corner and waste piece of ground was sought out by the Council. Bermondsey became a place of unexpected beauty spots. Amidst soot-grimed buildings one suddenly came upon splashes of brilliant colour.’ Experts from all over Europe came to see these innovations. The idea of the Green Belt was initiated by the Women’s Labour League, to be eventually taken up by the Labour party.

During all the difficult years of the war, she continued not only to support her husband but in her own right to work on the Borough Council, the London County Council, being elected to the executive of the London Labour Party in 1918, helping the National Garden Guild, and becoming chairman of the management committee of the local Co-operative Bakery, in addition to her work in the women’s trade union movement and the peace movement.

The SecondWorld War was devastating to the Salters. Their home, along with much of the area they had loved and worked for, was destroyed by bombs, and they retreated to Balham to live with Ada’s sisters, where she died on December 5, 1942 aged 76.


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