Ada Salter, early 20th century greenspace and social justice campaigner, has been commemorated with a Historic England blue plaque at the house founded by Methodist reformer John Scott Lidgett in the Bermondsey Settlement, south London. 

Ada Salter, greenspace and social justice campaigner, was born in Northamptonshire in 1866 from a middle-class family. She moved in 1897 to live and work in Bermondsey Settlement, the area was one of the worst slums in London, if not Europe at the time. She married Alfred a doctor who practiced, often for free, in their community which was very poor with terrible health outcomes. They sadly they lost their 8-year-old daughter to scarlet fever a year after Ada was elected a Bermondsey Borough councillor for the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1909. 


In 1922 Bermondsey was one of the smaller London boroughs but one of the most densely settled where industry, making up a quarter of the area, and housing had less than 1% was open public space. Ada, the first Labour councillor of Bermondsey and one of the first women councillors in London, became London’s first female mayor and Britain’s first female Labour mayor when she was elected mayor of Bermondsey in 1922. Her husband Alfred became MP for West Bermondsey also in 1922 and during 1924-45. She chaired the Beautification Committee of the new Labour administration for eleven years, announcing it’s goal ‘Fresh air and fun’ on the first meeting in 1923. Ada believed that gardens and playgrounds were integral to a holistic public welfare programme.

“She believed that if people had beautiful surroundings they could become decent, beautiful people. She felt living in the slums was degrading and made people lose their self-respect.” Graham Taylor, Ada’s biographer

‘Levelling Up’

Although all of the ambitious plans to ‘level up’ the borough with the west end of London didn’t come to fruition a lot was accomplished to ‘green’ the environment. By 1926 the Beautification Department had 36 employees plus 8 caretakers of the parks and open spaces and almost 90% of the streets had 10,000 trees and shrubs planted along them, many by tree planters supported by a 60% subsidy from the Unemployment Grants Committee. The trees and shrubs had mainly come from Fairby Grange in Kent, a house and garden bought by the Salters which was donated to the council for convalescent nursing mothers and children.

“The beautification project began one of the most remarkable episodes in municipal history” Graham Taylor, Ada's biographer

There was a limit to how much green and open spaces could be created in such a densely populated and industrialised area but the existing greenspaces, mainly old churchyards, were planted out with many flowers. Ada’s legacy went further, English Heritage Rebecca Preston points out that the vice-chair of the London County Council parks committee helped create maternity and child-welfare services which led to the foundation of the borough’s municipal health service and pushed for a green belt around London which became law in 1938.

Photographs copyright of Southwark Local History Library and Archive

Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism by Graham Taylor is published by Lawrence & Wishart
(1) Elizabeth Lebas ‘The Making of a Socialist Arcadia: arboriculture and horticulture in the London Borough of Bermondsey after the Great War’ Garden History, vol 27, no 2, winter 1999