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Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism

Graham Taylor
Lawrence and Wishart, London 2016 PB pp299, ISBN 978-1-910448-01-4 £25

This biography of Ada Salter, the often-overlooked wife of Bermondsey doctor, Alfred Salter, is a very heartening read about ethical socialism, in these days of blatant political greed and corruption.

Ada Salter (1866-1942) was part of that complex jigsaw formed by early twentieth century pioneering women, mostly socialists, mostly suffrage activists, who were involved in campaigns for maternal welfare, housing, and, more generally for social justice. This book, which is well researched and well written, tells her story and clearly situates her as a significant figure in early twentieth socialist politics.

Ada Brown moved to London from Northampton in the 1890s, to work in the Bermondsey Settlement and despite her middle-class upbringing, found an affinity with the ‘rough’ working class girls that she worked with, seeing ‘that of God in them all’. While working there, Ada lived locally in a working-class tenement. When she married Quaker Dr Salter, they lived in the heart of Bermondsey and Alfred became one of 3 ‘poor man’s’ doctors serving a community of over 10,000 patients.

Ada, having left the Liberals and joined the ILP, was one of the founding members of the Women’s Labour League in 1906. Although she was a strong believer in adult suffrage, she joined the Women’s Freedom League set up by her friend Lottie Despard in 1907, in protest against the despotic leadership of the Pankhurst’s Women’s and Social and Political Union.

In 1909, Ada became the first ILP and first woman councillor in Bermondsey, recognised as a political force locally, working on the Public Health and Housing Committees. In 1910, the Salters’ young daughter Joyce died from scarlet fever, and the local community rallied around. The sadness of this tragedy never left the Salters.

Ada became a Quaker just before WW1, when both Salters were committed pacifists, often facing hostility from their local community. In 194/15, Ada was one of the signatories to an Open Letter to German and Austrian women, joined the Women’s International League and worked throughout the war for the No Conscription Fellowship.

In 1919, Ada became mayor for Bermondsey, ‘[As a] Quaker Socialist,[she] refused to wear the mayoral chains and robes… royal jubilees and royal birthdays were no longer to be celebrated, the money saved would be distributed to the needy….the Union Jack to be hauled down and instead a red flag, bearing local symbols, the badges of Municipal Socialism’.

She was absolutely committed to the beautification of inner-city Bermondsey and under her stewardship, a Beautification Committee was set up: ‘[the council] buys flowers and flowering plants, [with] a sense of collective responsibility for abolishing ugliness and for cultivating beauty.’

Ada Salter was a woman committed to social justice, equality, good housing, education, and a fervent belief that ‘It can be Done!’

We need more Ada Salters!

Alison Ronan

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