Sunday 17 October 2010

Alfred Salter

Alfred Salter was born on 16th June 1873 in South Street, Greenwich to parents belonging to the Plymouth Brethren. At the age of 9 he joined The Band of Hope, a temperance movement for working class children. Members, as young as 6, met once a week to listen to lectures on the evils of drink.
(The Greenwich birthplace of Alfred Salter)

Salter studied medicine at Guys Hospital after winning a three year scholarship worth £50 a year. After graduating he became interested in politics and soon became a committed socialist, joining the Fabian Society in 1890. It believed that capitalism was unjust and inefficient and that a new socialist society should be created in accordance with high moral principles. As a student Salter visited working class homes in Bermondsey, which reinforced his socialist commitment.

Trade and industry started to flourish in Bermondsey at the end of the 19th century and the population increased from 27,500 in 1851 to 136,000 in 1891. There were few places to live with conditions so bad that people were known to sleep nine to a room with one tap severing as many as 25 houses. The tap was ‘on’ for only two hours a day though never on a Sunday. People worked long hours for low pay in the local docks and tanneries but regular work was uncertain. A lack of sanitation and nourishing food caused diseases from which many died.

Salter went to live in the Bermondsey Settlement which was created by Rev John Scott Lidgett in 1891. (Dr Lidgett resigned from his post as Bermondsey Settlement warden in 1949 at the ripe old age of 95). It provided a home for Methodists from where they could share their lives with people in this deprived area. It was a community of like minded people concerned with the well being of the local neighbourhood. Other philanthropists and social commentators were attracted to the area. A group of ‘Oxbridge’ men started youth work creating the Oxford & Bermondsey Club. Like missionary’s exploring the Dark Continent they created medical missions with Dr Selina Fox opening the Bermondsey Medical Mission for Women in 1904 and the Oxford Medical Mission opening in 1906. The Cambridge University Mission (C.U.M. as it’s known) was founded in 1907 as a medical mission and residential home. Other institutions included the South London Mission that provided free breakfasts and the Gedling Mission offering a soup kitchen.

While working at the Bermondsey Settlement, Salter met Ada Brown, a devote Christian (Salter was agnostic but later converted under Ada’s influence) who he married on 22 August 1900. As socialists and Christians they decided to devote their lives to helping the poor. On his way home one night by tram Salter spotted a vacant shop on the corner of Keetons Road and Jamaica Road. He instantly rented the shop to act as his surgery using the rooms above as his home. They created a medical practice that soon became so popular that four more doctors, all sharing the same Christian, socialist beliefs were recruited. The low costs, sixpence but only if a patient could spare it and an insistence that hospital beds were made available for urgent cases, made Salter very popular. By 1918 the medical centre had over 12,000 names on its books. Despite this Alfred and Ada realised that to really help the poor they should create change and both decided to join local Government.

Ada became London’s first female Lord Mayor in 1910 but refused to wear the robes and chain of office. She created the Beautification Committee and employed Borough Garden Superintendents to plant tress in every street to improve the air quality and to plant flowers in every vacant spot. Nine thousand tress were planted in just two years and locals were given bulbs with which to start their own window boxes. This became a Bermondsey revolution and stated to improve the lives of ordinary working class people. Ada also created the Rose Garden in Southwark Park as a place for pregnant women and the elderly to sit and enjoy the fresh air.

Alfred Salter joined the Liberal Party and was elected to the Bermondsey Borough Council in 1903 and two years later became a member of the London County Council. In May 1908 he joined the Labour Party under the leadership of Keir Hardy. In 1922 he became MP for Bermondsey West.

Salter was very much his own man. As a pacifist he was opposed to the First World War and in August 1914 published a pamphlet entitled “Faith of a Pacifist”. It sold over a million copies. It was translated into several languages and clandestinely distributed in Germany. The pamphlet reached Asia and China and over 80 people were sent to prison for its distribution in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He came under suspicion of being pro German but the people of Bermondsey came to his defence. Their affection for the ‘Good Doctor’ was more important than his view on the war, which the vast majority of the local population disagreed with, sometimes violently. At the time of publication he had no idea what the consequences might be for actively opposing the war but he was never one to hide his convictions.
Though a devout Christian he disagreed with the state providing single faith schools on the grounds that an atheist should not have to contribute to the running of Christian run schools.

Ada and Alfred bought Fairby Grange in Kent in 1917 and turned it into a nursing home for mothers and babies, a convalescent home for the sick and a home for WW1 conscientious objectors who had been physically and mentally broken by imprisonment. The 11 acres of ground were used to grow trees and flowers for the beautification of Bermondsey and became a holiday camp for boys during the summer months. As a convalescent home it never charged a fee.

The labour council became so popular that it created a national record by winning all the seats on the Borough council. A 1905 inquiry estimated that of the 19,000 houses in Bermondsey only 113 had a bath and these were in the homes of the clergy, doctors and publicans. By 1927 little had changed and  as a response the council created a ‘Palace of Baths’. This included public baths, a laundry, Turkish and Russian vapour baths and 1st and 2nd class swimming pools with people queuing in the streets to use these facilities that were regarded as the finest in England and possibly Europe. A solarium was also created to cure children of tuberculosis due to the lack of natural sunlight, smog and air pollution. Some children were even sent to recuperate in Switzerland as the fresh mountain air aided their recovery. In 1926 Salter was sent to Switzerland to recover from exhaustion but quickly returned to show support for the General Strike.

(Bermondsey Medical Centre, better known to locals as the Solarium)

Salter’s treatment became so successful that the infant mortality rate between 1911 and 1935 fell from 160 to 69 and in 1935 not one mother died in childbirth despite 1,487 births.

The labour council decided to replace the Union Jack flying from the top of the town hall with a predominately red flag that caused outrage in the press. The flag included the borough coat of arms, a lion carrying an abbot's crozier, a ship and a battle axe and crown of St Olaf the warrior king that gave his name to the old parish of St Olave's. The Tory press were furious that a 'Red Flag', the colour of revolution, should replace the Union Jack but Salter claimed that it did not represent blood spilled in revolution but the blood that flows trough the veins of all men and women.

Salter always cycled to the House of Commons. The St James Church Magazine wrote "When the Rolls Royces glide into Palace Yard to deposit our MP's there comes, too, a push bike of prehistoric make - nothing like it can now be seen outside the British Museum. It is the Member for West Bermondsey arriving to renew the fight for the causes he loves"

In the 1929 General Election Salter increased his majority but made it clear to Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald that he should not be considered for a Ministerial post due to his pacifist principles and that he would not bow his knee to anyone except his maker. In 1930 Alfred and Ada joined the newly formed Socialist Medical Association that believed that medical service should be provided free to all that needed it. This was a full 18 years before the launch of the NHS by Aneurin Bevin in July 1948.

As a member of the Peace Pledge Union Alfred Salter toured the USA with George Landsbury addressing large crowds and met with President Roosevelt. He was opposed to Hitler but did not believe that it was worth the blood of millions of lives fighting him. Bermondsey refused to have an ARP committee as late as 1937 until it was finally made compulsory. When war broke out he became physically ill having believed that Hitler would never attack. Despite his own home at 5 Storks Road, where he had lived since January 1906, being bombed during the blitz he remained an opponent of the bombing of Nazi Germany.

The great man passed away in 1945 three years after Ada who died in 1942.

"I regard the work which he did in Bermondsey as among the greatest personal contribution to social progress in this century" wrote Fenner Brockway in the biography of Alfred Salter, "The Bermondsey Story".

Bermondsey Station

This is very much a work in progress and would appreciate any contributions readers may have to shed more light on this remarkable man.

New Bermondsey Salter statues unveiled after theft - BBC News 30th November 2014

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this, I am reading Fenner Brockway's book at the moment - it's very inspiring, indeed, and I was hoping to be able to visit some of the sites relating to Dr Salter in London. Your article has given me some starting points! It seems the statue of Dr Salter which was once on the Thames was stolen, though, which is a shame because there should be some lasting testimony to this amazing man.