by Brian Beecroft
Alfred Salter was a man of principles – a pacifist, a teetotaller, and determined to improve the lives of the poor in Bermondsey. He preached and put into practice these principles.
He was active in temperance movement as a result of his experiences as a doctor, work on the Board of Guardians and as a magistrate. He joined the Band of Hope when a boy.
He would not be deviated from those principles even if it meant defeat or loss in the short term. One example, in the General Election of 1922 Alfred was the Labour candidate for Bermondsey. On the eve of the election, at a meeting of supporters, Alfred told his audience – “If you want a member of Parliament who will vote for cheaper beer, then elect one of the other candidates. If you want a Member of Parliament who will vote for an army and a navy to defend Britain and the Empire, then elect one of the other candidates.” He went on to denounce beer drinking and to say he would close every pub if he had his way. The audience was stunned. Alfred recalled that he had been a conscientious objector during the war and had not lifted a finger for military victory. He castigated brewers, publicans, militarists and generals and their dupes. Alfred’s agent slipped out of the hall to phone colleagues to send a message to the doctor that a life or death medical case urgently needed his attention – saying that the doctor was losing votes with every word he uttered.
When the agent returned Alfred was summing up: I will vote for prohibition, I will vote against credits for the armed forces. I can do no other. If do not like it, do not make me your MP. There was absolute silence for half a minute and then every one in the hall rose to their feet cheering.
The majority of the audience were drinkers, most of the men had served in the forces during the war yet they voted solidly for the teetotal pacifist the next day and Alfred Salter became their MP.
Alfred was born in Greenwich of parents who were Methodists but who became members of the Plymouth Brethren. At the age of 16 Alfred was preaching with the Salvation Army.
Alfred won a scholarship to Guys Medical School. He spent long hours studying in the medical library at Guys. His brother John would enjoy climbing the ladders to the high shelves of books searching for works that Alfred wanted.
He was gifted with a photographic memory. Having found that the best research was written in German, he bought a German dictionary, employed a coach so that in six weeks he was able to read scientific papers in German.
In his teens he would go with his younger brother to the Kent countryside daubing a mixture of honey and rum onto trees to trap hapless insects that they would add to their collection. He loved nature but had to know about it. So he collected and read, filling notebooks with sketches and notes and his bedrooms with specimens – soil, rocks, fossils, shells, butterflies and moths. When a student, a full human skeleton was stretched out under his bed.
After reading Darwin he became an agnostic and developed political convictions for the righting of social injustice. He became the member of a secret society that assisted refugees from the continent come ashore from ships in the Thames.
It was in his work as a medical student that he became aware of the conditions of the poor in Bermondsey. He was called to a maternity case. It was a cold day, but the family were too poor to afford to put a coin in the gas meter for heating. The house was one up and one down with a small scullery and no backyard except a shut in paved area three feet deep. Drying and washing were done in the forecourt where at the other end was one stand pipe for water serving 25 houses. The water was on for two hours a day, but not on Sundays. One water closet served the 25 houses. Queues lined up outside this water closet – men, women and children every morning before they went to work. Thousands of homes were the same at that time. Returning to the hospital that day his emotions stirred to anger and he had the idea of devoting his life to the service of the people of Bermondsey and to the ending of the awful conditions in which they lived. (FB p12).
The way Alfred’s interests were developing disappointed his parents but he had the friendship of the Aldham family who were friends of his parents. Alfred’s parents broke with the Aldhams when the Aldhams became agnostics but Alfred retained contact and enjoyed their sympathetic support for a very long time. Mrs Aldham was a political woman and later went to prison many times as a suffragette.
Joseph Lister was Alfred’s hero and through him, Alfred learned of Quakers.
Working in Glasgow Lister discovered that sterilising surgeons hands and instruments and the patients’ skin with carbolic acid dramatically reduced death from septicaemia and reduced healing time from months to weeks. Lister impressed Alfred by his modest, simple nature and devotion to truth and humanity. Lister had been greatly influenced by his upbringing in Quaker schools and this fact interested Alfred in the Society of Friends.
Backed by strong testimonies from his teachers at Guys, Alfred was invited to become bacteriologist at the Lister Institute.
Still Alfred agonised over the plight of the poor in Bermondsey. He became attracted to a doctor, Scott Lidgett, who had given up an academic life to serve the people of Bermondsey at the Methodist Bermondsey Settlement. So in 1898 Alfred took up residence at the Settlement at first continuing his work at the Lister Institute by day and throwing himself into social work at the Settlement in his spare time. He gained the confidence of the working classes and was welcomed into their homes. He started a Dividing Insurance Society which gave allowances to members during illness and distributed the surplus at Christmas. He also started an ambulance corps among the workers at the docks and the tanneries and a men’s adult school on Sundays . At the Settlement he was known as the Settlement’s firebrand – he was a republican, a socialist, agnostic, teetotaller and pacifist. He was full of enthusiasm and enjoyed a good laugh even at his own expense.
Shortly after Alfred joined the Settlement, a young girl from Northampton, Ada Brown, came to work at the West London Mission. Ada had a religious motive but added a social purpose to it. She looked after the Girls Club at the Settlement. The girls were rag sorters, wood choppers, rough and tough, sometimes reacting against the drabness of their existence by indulging in excesses, arriving drunk at the Club. Ada’s gracious personality had a remarkable effect on many of these girls, they came under its influence, their characters started to change and despite their surroundings a gentleness and love of beauty came into their lives. Ada moved out of the Settlement to live in tenement near by in order to identify more closely with the people she served.
Three important events took place in 1900 –
1. Alfred and Ada fell in love and married. Ada smiled at Alfred’s excesses but developed an enthusiasm for the political, social and economic changes that were important to him.
2. Alfred set up a medical practice in Jamaica Road to serve the poor. He charged 6d a consultation, undercutting and annoying other doctors in the district. After a slow start, the practice over the years took on four more doctors, grew to having 14,000 patients on its books and had to move to larger premises.
3. Alfred loved discussions and a series on Christianity at the Settlement (FB p17) led by Scott Lidgett persuaded Alfred that Christianity was the right way and he and Ada joined the Quakers and attended Peckham Meeting.
Both Alfred and Ada were extremely busy people but they made a practice all their lives to be together from 11pm to 1.00am each day. Over a meal they would discuss the days events in their respective spheres of work and seek each others advice.
In 1902 their daughter Joyce was born. The Salters wanted their daughter to be part of the Bermondsey community and so Joyce went to the local school and local children came into their home to play. A separate room equipped with a toys was set aside for that purpose and after the children had departed were all scrupulously washed.
At the age of eight Joyce contracted scarlet fever for the third time and died. Ada and Alfred were broken hearted but the tragedy made them all the more determined to work for improved living conditions for Bermondsey people. It made them feel they had become even more one of the people of Bermondsey to whom it was common to lose children through illness.
Alfred gave himself to his medical duties with renewed zeal, astonishing even his partners not only with the long list of patients he would see each day but by the care he devoted to them.
The same passion to save life and make it healthy and fully animated all his political thinking and activity. If a proposal would save lives, make lives healthier, happier and better he would campaign for it with religious intensity. If it sacrificed health and life he would denounce it as of the devil. “I came that ye might have life and have it more abundantly” was not only the text of sermons he preached in the local chapels, but featured in the speeches he delivered at political meetings.
Social Changes in Bermondsey.
Alfred realised that substantial change in the conditions of the poor would only come from political activity. At that time the Tories and the Liberals dominated the local council and Alfred joined the liberal party as had many of his colleagues at the Settlement. In 1903 Alfred was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council and in 1906 he was elected to the London City Council as one of the Progressive Party – a more socially active wing of the Liberal Party.
In 1907 Alfred was angered when the Tory dominated LCC declined to operate the act for the provision of school meals for necessitous children. The Tories claimed that no action was needed and that charitable agencies met the need. Returns in the borough showed that at 393 schools 44,321 children required meals and that charities could only feed 27,000. (FB p29)
It became clear to Alfred that significant improvement in the lives of Bermondsey people would be blocked by the Tories or Liberals in power.
The limited power of the Borough Council and the lack of commitment to bring about change on the part of his Liberal colleagues lead Alfred to join with others in establishing a branch of the Independent Labour Party in Bermondsey in 1908. This meant Alfred loosing his seat on the Council and the LCC. He reasoned that only by having their own political representation would the workers of Bermondsey improve their living conditions. (FB p 40) It was not long before Alfred was re-elected as the labour MP.
Alfred would say that there is no need for any man, woman or child in England to be poor. But first it was necessary to teach politicians and people that that was possible. (FB p 38)
Trees and Flowers
The improvements the Salters brought to Bermondsey were wide ranging. They both loved nature and beauty and had ambitions that Bermondsey should be converted into a garden. Ada established a “Beautification Committee” which directed the planting of trees in the streets of Bermondsey. Mean narrow streets became avenues of trees. Ada got the Gas Company to finance the planting of trees in the streets persuading the company that the condition of the trees would indicate the occurrence of gas leaks. (Jean Edwards).
Churches were persuaded to move grave stones to the side of their churchyards and have them planted with flower beds. The Quaker Burial Ground in Long Lane was planted with flowers. In Bermondsey the only available space for flowers was the churchyards. People were persuaded to adorn their houses with window boxes so that there were blooms from January to December.
Bermondsey Council not only wanted open spaces for beauty. The children whose only playground was the street needed space for recreation. Arthur Carr, director of Peak-Frean’s Biscuits visited St James Church yard to view the beds of tulips. He noticed children sliding down a 3 foot slab of stone. Immediately he offered to provide a full length children’s slide and in the churchyard the first covered slide in England was erected. St James’s Churchyard used as a children’s playground became Alfred’s favourite spot in Bermondsey.
Where did the plants and trees come from? Fairby Grange – the buildings and gardens were used to rehabilitate the lives of mothers and children after childbirth or illness and the estate to grow trees and flowers for the beautification of Bermondsey.
(FB p 69) In 1917 the Salters bought Fairby Grange in Hartley in Kent. Initially it was used to convalesce soldiers traumatised by their war experiences and to rehabilitate Conscientious Objectors who had been brutally treated in prison. When Fairby Grange was no longer needed for these purposes it was used to treat women broken by continual child bearing and for summer camps for Bermondsey boys. These boys and women from Bermondsey struck a curious spectacle in the village of Hartley. The Grange continued to be used for treating Bermondsey People. Alfred held that everyone should be treated equally and that being treated away from Bermondsey should not be limited to those who could afford to pay for it.
Fairby Grange still stands being used as a Residential Care Home. Its grounds have, however, been sold off to developers for housing.
Bermondsey the Garden City
In 1926 Alfred wanted the slums of Bermondsey pulled down and replaced by a garden city. He envisaged wide avenues and semi-detached cottages. Alfred’s enthusiasm and arguments won over the Borough Council. He suggested that half the population was moved to the outskirts of London and used cheap speedy transport to get to their work in Bermondsey. Opposition from the LCC and government prevented Alfred’s dream from being realised but Wilson Grove stands today as an example of what might have been. Due to lack of space, in 1936 the Council had to build flats to re-house those living in conditions too horrible and indecent to be described.
Cooperative Bakery 1913-1914
A local baker offered his business to be converted into a co-operative venture. Having established that demand for bread would be greater than the existing business could supply, a new bake house was built using loans and donations and 1 penny shares bought by members of the Independent Labour Party. Good bread was baked and sold more cheaply that from other bakers. There were model working conditions – above union rates of pay, a 44 hour week and three weeks paid holiday a year. Further, an annual bonus of one shilling in the pound spent was distributed to customers.
(FB p 50 &119)
TB was one of the scourges of Bermondsey and Alfred Salter was appalled by its prevalence. In a ten year period there had been one case for every three houses in Bermondsey. 200 – 250 deaths each year resulted from TB. Alfred knew that the deaths were unnecessary. TB flourished because of poverty, darkness and bad air, of malnutrition and overcrowding. He himself had been saved from the effects of TB by sanatorium treatment and then by sleeping every night in an open air shelter in his garden. Alfred got the Council to construct similar shelters and loan them to patients on their return from a sanatorium and to those who showed TB tendencies. Even when houses had no gardens shelters could be placed in back yards. After some persuasion many Bermondsey people began to sleep out. In other cases the Council loaned beds for TB victims. Unfortunately many of the rooms were too small for a second bed. Investigation revealed that 45% of TB sufferers shared a bed with others. Only 39% slept in separate rooms.
The council encouraged people to drink only Tuberculin Tested milk which would prevent surgical TB, of which 90 new cases occurred each year. (FB p97)
It was recognised that sunlight and fresh air benefited TB sufferers. A solarium was opened in Bermondsey. In 1926 direct sunlight was supplemented by ultra violet. The number of TB cases fell from 413 in 1922 to 294 in 1927 and deaths from 206 to 175.The success of the solarium brought visitors from boroughs all over Britain.
Good health was actively encouraged in the borough. Films were shown and talks given at street corners. Campaigns were run in churches, chapels, schools, factories and clubs. Pamphlets, leaflets and slogan posters covered the borough. A systematic inspection of houses identified conditions dangerous to health. Premises where food was sold or prepared were examined and food analysed. Consequently the death rate fell from 16.7 per 1000 in 1922 to 12.9 per 1000 in 1927.
Baths and wash houses that had been built in 1853, were in a dangerous condition. 99 people in every 100 had no baths at home and relied on public baths. In 1927 the finest baths in Britain were opened. A “First Class” swimming pool, 100 feet long and 39 feet wide, was built and a Second Class swimming pool primarily for teaching children to swim. There were Turkish and Russian vapour baths. (FB p102)
Attached to the baths was an up to date wash house. Most women had only a zinc bath, a gas ring and a kettle at home for washing. Water had to be carried up and down stairs. The first wash house had eight rotary washing machines, forty-three bowl washing compartments and drying facilities. From the start long lines of women formed to book places. As sites became available more public laundries with private baths attached were built throughout the borough.
Alfred was keen that everyone should have access to books. “Very few working class people could afford to buy books.” Alfred would say with a well-equipped free library a poor man can be as rich as a millionaire, as far as access to books is concerned. The Library in the borough was extended and a lecture hall built to seat 500 people.
A private book shop was opened which became a club of culture. There was a reading room, classes were arranged, as were lectures and discussions. A dramatic class later became the Bermondsey Repertory Company. A quarterly magazine “The Bermondsey Book” published contributions from working men and women. The first published writing of HE Bates appeared in it.
The Borough established a Municipal Choir and Orchestra with 50 players. In the winter concerts were given in the Town Hall and in the summer in gardens.
Alfred as a pacifist
Preceding both the first and the second world wars, there was a large body of public opinion opposed to each war. And yet when war had been declared their opposition to war evaporated.
Alfred was resolute in his stand against the use of force. In 1914 he placed his faith in the European Labour Movement and believed that the workers on both sides would act to prevent war and not set about killing each other. Working class demonstrations were held in every capital of Europe on the Sunday before war was declared. Trafalgar Square was packed even though it was pouring with rain.
Alfred wrote “The Religion of the Conscientious Objector” (The Friend vol 103 p581) or “Faith of a Pacifist” (FB p58) published in 1914, which sold over a million copies and was translated into other European languages and Chinese. The principle was laid down that a Christian must do what Christ would do. “The Germans have over run Belgium and France and may possibly invade England by airship and drop bombs on London. What am I to do? – make myself proficient in arms and hurry to the continent to beat off the Germans?
Look! Christ in khaki, out in France thrusting his bayonet into a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun ambushing a column of German infantry. …. That picture is impossible – and we all know it”
I cannot uphold war even as supposedly defence and I cannot advise anyone else to take part in what I believe to be wrong and wicked for myself.”
Many sermons were preached on this theme. Ministers paid tribute to the work that Alfred had done in Bermondsey and his integrity (FB p59.) But once war had been declared many ministers transformed their pulpits into recruiting platforms.
Those who spoke against fighting risked injury to their property and themselves.
Mr Dunn was a non conformist minister who, during the 1912 workers strike for better pay, converted his chapel into a food distribution centre. He had been on holiday in Germany just before war was declared. Mr Dunn wrote in his magazine praising the hospitality and friendliness of the German people – that they desired nothing more fervently than to live in peace with British people and all their neighbours. The church magazine was circulated just as atrocities in Belgium occupied the front pages of newspapers. The local press reprinted the minister’s eulogies with shocked outrage and false accusations were made about the minister. (FB p 61)
At the height of public feeling Mr Dunn and Alfred were due to address an outdoor meeting. An angry crowd gathered and when Mr Dunn mounted the rostrum someone shouted “Hang him on a lamp post”. There was an angry rush, the minister was pushed to the ground and the rostrum smashed to pieces. Mr Dunn was lucky to escape injury, but eventually had to leave Bermondsey for his own safety!
There were other instances of violence and injury against those who might question the rightness of war. Even Alfred had a mob threatening to throw stones at his house. He came to the door and reminded the crowd of the care and improvements he had given them. The crowd melted away.
Throughout the war Alfred supported conscientious objectors (COs) by acting as adviser and friend to members of the No-Conscription Fellowship in Bermondsey, and by taking up the cases of individuals persecuted for being COs. (See especially the case of Isaac Hall FB p67.)
Preparation for the Second World War.
In 1935 Alfred proposed to Parliament that there should be a world peace conference. (FB p 195) His case was that countries such as Germany, Japan and Italy threatened peace because of the pressure of their population and their need to obtain food and essential raw materials. Alfred case was that Great Britain, France, Russia and the USA owned 85% of the world’s total mineral wealth and raw materials, leaving 15% for the other 68 countries which included Germany, Japan and Italy.
The resolution was defeated. Knowing that Yearly Meeting was taking place at Friends House, Alfred went to meet with the peace workers there. They requested permission to broadcast on the BBC but were refused. George Landsbury and Alfred Salter decided to make a visit to the USA and to Europe to make speeches in support of peace, and to meet heads of state to persuade them to attend and international peace conference for the fairer distribution of resources. All the heads agreed providing that Britain would call the conference. But, the British government would not agree to attend and so the conference never took place. (FB p 211) Alfred continued to travel the country speaking in the cause of pacifism despite failing health, which dogged Alfred for the last ten years of his life but did not deter his spirit or determination to carry on with what he considered right.
From 1935 the government initiated air raid precautions which Alfred opposed and with which Bermondsey refused to co-operate. (FB p 204)
In December 1938 the government introduced a National Register of offers of National service. Alfred regarded this as a prelude to conscription and a No Conscription League was formed in Bermondsey and a national convention held. The League gave advice to Conscientious Objectors. Alfred took a foremost part in helping COs in Bermondsey.
The war came and in 1940 a large part of Bermondsey was destroyed by bombing. In February the Salter’s home was hit and they moved to Ada’s sister’s house in Balham.
Alfred’s last speech to Parliament in 1941 was an appeal for peace. “Britain and Europe are rushing down the slope to collective suicide. Will not someone for the love of God demand sanity and peace,” he said. About 100 MPs listened in silent respect to the elderly, frail, speaker whose sincerity they did not doubt. Alfred said afterwards that during his speech he was upheld by the words of the prophet Ezekiel “Fear not – all my words that I shall speak unto thee, receive in thy heart.”
In December 1942 Ada died. Alfred declared that “it is now left to me to move heavenwards in continuous sorrow.” The obituary in The Friend ends “Bermondsey will always remember them as Dr and Mrs Salter”.
In 1909 Ada had been elected the first woman councillor in London. In 1922 she became mayor and Alfred was her escort. Instead of prayers led by a chaplain, those who wished to met for quiet meditation before council meetings in the mayor’s parlour. Ada wore neither robes nor chain.
During her life Ada had served for 34 years as a member of the Board of Guardians and had been active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, served on the Parks Committee of the LCC. She was a member of the Peace Pledge Union which met in her house, and was an elder at Peckham Friends Meeting.
Ada changed the face of Bermondsey and the outlook and minds of the people on the Borough Council and the LCC.
Drab and narrow streets were changed to avenues of trees. Mean houses were replaced with flats with magnificent forecourts, each with grass and flowers
The LCC and Bermondsey Council dedicated the Rose Garden, in Southwark Park, to the memory of Ada Salter. It is still known as the Ada Salter Garden. A tree was planted that came from Fairby Grange and was the Tree of Heaven, a species brought back from China by the Quaker, Peter Collinson, in 1751.
Despite continual failing health, in December 1943 Alfred took part in a 2 day fast to draw attention to the starvation being suffered by the people of Greece.
In May 1945 peace came to Europe and in August the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mercifully by this time Alfred was too ill to know what was happening and on the 24th he died.
As happened for Ada, a Memorial Meeting was held in Peckham Meeting, and a memorial service in St. James Church Bermondsey attended by the people of Bermondsey.
The Testimony to the grace of God as shown in the life of Alfred Salter likened him to an Old Testament prophet – like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Alfred showed his generation how to build a new world where in dwelled Righteousness and Peace.
Long Lane, Bermondsey, Burial Ground
This is situated at the east end of Long Lane. It is now a children’s play area – one of those (together with Tooley Street, and Tanner Lane: site of Bermondsey Work House) that Alfred Salter was instrumental in setting up as children’s play area.
There are gravestones set against the east wall ( but by their size do not look like Quaker grave stones) and on the south wall there is an inscription:-
Long Lane Burial Ground
The property of Six Weeks Meeting of the Society of Friends. This tablet has been placed here By order of the Meeting. The burial ground was purchased in 1687, was extensively used For Friends burials until it closed By order of the Privy Council In 1855 Eighth month (August) 1895.
Alfred Salter, born 1873, died 1945.
Brian Beecroft prepared these notes for a talk to Westminster Local Meeting Coffee Morning on 26/02/2008. Minor corrections were made in 05/2011. The Salter Lecture, an annual lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting, will be given this year by Jon Cruddas MP in Canterbury.
Notes: FB refers to a biography of Alfred Salter “The Life of Alfred Salter – BERMONDSEY STORY”, by Fenner Brockway, published for the Bermondsey independent Labour Pary Ltd by Geroge Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1949. Jean Edwards is a Blackheath Friend whose family were much involved with Peckham Meeting.