In 1896 Ada Brown left her well-off family in Raunds, Northamptonshire, and moved to London in order to live and work in the slums of St Pancras and Soho. She found she had a talent for organizing into social clubs the roughest and most intractable working-class girls. In 1897 she moved to the Bermondsey Settlement run by a famous Methodist minister, Scott Lidgett, and there her clubs became legendary.
In Bermondsey she met Dr Alfred Salter, a brilliant student from Guy’s Hospital, then working at Joseph Lister’s research institute in Sudbury. In 1899, after months of arguing with Ada and Lidgett about religion and politics, Alfred resolved to sacrifice his career in order to tend the sick and poor in Bermondsey. His work there as a doctor, complementary to Ada’s, was to become legendary too. Alfred became a Quaker and in 1900 he and Ada were married. In 1902 their ill-fated daughter, Joyce, was born.
Ada and Alfred believed they should live in the slums themselves, in order to win the trust of the people they were trying to serve. Joyce could have been educated far away but on principle they chose to educate her locally, though they knew the area was often struck by epidemic diseases. In 1910 Joyce contracted a particularly malignant form of scarlet fever and not even Alfred could save her. They had dedicated their lives to the poor, but it had cost them the life of their only child.
Lidgett persuaded Ada and Alfred to join the Liberal Party. In 1903 Alfred was elected to Bermondsey Council and in 1906 to the London County Council. After 1907, when women were allowed to stand in such elections, Ada made history by becoming the first woman Councillor in Bermondsey and the first Labour woman Councillor in London. In 1922 she became the first woman mayor in London, of any party. Simultaneously, in 1922, Alfred became Labour MP for Bermondsey West. He was still MP when he died in 1945.
The Salters were not remembered, however, for their political party but for their moral integrity as Quakers, for their egalitarian principles, for their social work in the slums, and for the tragic loss of their daughter, Joyce.
As a doctor, Alfred was famous for treating his poorest patients for free and introducing into Bermondsey the latest methods of treatment. He created an ‘NHS before the NHS’. Ada’s Beautification Committee covered the borough in trees, flowers and playgrounds, while her work with Herbert Morrison on the LCC, to which she was elected in 1925, resulted in the Green Belt around London. As Quakers, they campaigned for world peace. Alfred succeeded Bertrand Russell as Chair of the No-Conscription Fellowship and Ada was elected President of the Women’s International League.
Together, Ada and Alfred cleared away thousands of tenements and built model housing which both improved health (Alfred) and minimized housework (Ada). The Salter model houses are still to be seen in the tree-lined Wilson Grove, London SE16. Alfred’s legacy can also be seen in the NHS, which he helped to pioneer. Ada’s legacy is to be seen in the rights of working women which she helped progress as President of the Women’s Labour League.