Dr Alfred Salter – The man who created an NHS before the NHS was created

My walk of discovery along the southern bank of the Thames through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe was proving to reveal all manner of hidden gems of London both past and present.  The next discovery however was something or rather someone which I knew next to nothing about.  Not far from the manor house and Angel Pub I came across a number of wonderful statues.


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Dr. Alfred Salter


As you can see the statues are clutching poppies, my walk being arounf Armistice Day.



Ada Salter



Joyce Salter and her pet cat.


It is always a joy to discover great historical figures I know little about, without being immodest, it is a rather unusual occurence these days and if there is one thing I like doing then it is learning about new historical figures.  If you check through my blog posts you can find many such people from the totally mad John “Mad Jack” Mytton  to the forgotten Gertrude Bell.  The Victorian heroine Grace Darling to possibly the richest man in history Musa I of Mali who made gold almost worthless.  I think my most recent post on such a man was in October and the incredible Jeremy Bentham who we all seemed to decide was about the most incredible person of his era if not any era.   Anyway, you get the idea how I like such individuals.  Alfred and Ada Salter may not quite live up to his stature but it is a sure thing that he would approved of them.

Alfred Salter was born in Greenwich in 1873 and had a brilliant career as a medical student at Guy’s hospital, but it was Bermondsey where he made his home. He spent his working life, first as a GP and then later as an MP, trying to improve the lot of the Bermondsey people, many of whom lived in overcrowded insanitary housing, that led to poor health.

Alfred was doctor to thousands of patients in an area where there was a case of TB in every third house and where illness claimed hundreds of children each year. There he campaigned for, and achieved, the tubercular-testing of milk.

A prestigious career was in prospect, but Alfred decided to become a local GP at the Bermondsey Methodist Settlement and dedicate his life to fighting the appalling poverty and disease that was rife in the local slums. The Settlement had been created by John Scott Lidgett who had a vision of the settlement as a “community of social workers who come to a poor neighbourhood to assist by methods of friendship and cooperation those who are concerned with upholding all that is essential to the well-being of the neighbourhood”.

Alfred was a doctor to thousands of patients in an area where there was a case of TB in every third house and where illness claimed hundreds of children each year. As a result, he campaigned for, and achieved, the tubercular-testing of milk and established mutual health insurance schemes.

While working at the Bermondsey Settlement he met and fell in love with Ada Brown, the leader of the Mothers’ Meeting and the Girls’ Club. Ada shared his political and social views. He converted her to socialism and she encouraged him to become a Christian. They joined the Peckham branch of the Society of Friends together, and decided to devote their lives to helping the people of Bermondsey.

In 1900, the year of their marriage, he established a general medical practice in the area and the couple worked together in trying to alleviate the effects of poverty in the largely working class area. Alfred rented out a shop on the corner of Jamaica Road and Keeton’s Road and turned it into a surgery. He upset his professional colleagues by charging only sixpence for medical conultations and chose to offer services free to those who could not pay. This work was to lead to the establishment of a pioneering comprehensive community health centre, 20 years before the NHS was founded.

Alfred’s takings during the first week amounted to 12s. 6d. This did not last long, however. Within a few weeks his problem became too many clients. It was not only his low charges which attracted patients, it was the treatment he gave and he was so successful he soon needed to recruit four other doctors to the surgery. Alfred ran the surgery as a local cooperative and the five doctors shared their takings equally.

His daughter Joyce was born in June 1902 and he was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council as a Liberal Whip and a JP, but he and his wife gradually grew disillusioned with the Liberal Party’s lack of radicalism and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

Alfred Salter and his daughter, Joyce who sadly died as a child.

Alfred Salter and his daughter, Joyce who sadly died as a child. Photo courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In a letter to his beloved wife, Ada (herself a tireless campaigner against poverty and would become the first female London Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922) we can see the frustration and resolve of the Salter’s;

Oh, the cruel wickedness of our society today! To thrust down these people by means of low wages and chronic unemployment into hopeless despair, and then leave them in that condition with no organised or conscious effort to rehabilitate them. What can we do?”

“You and I feel we have the same mission in life… we are living and working for the same goal- to make the world, and in particular, this corner of the world, happier and holier for our joint lives.”

So instead of moving into a safer, wealthier neighbourhood the Salters moved into the heart of Bermondsey, Jamaica Road and set up a surgery for the local poor. Alfred incurred the wrath of his medical peers for charging as little as sixpence for a consultation and giving them free to those who couldn’t afford it.

In 1902 the couple had a daughter, Joyce, and the new parents made the decision to educate her locally, showing yet more commitment to Bermondsey.   However their selfless acts brought a terrible consequence when “our ray of sunshine” caught scarlet fever and died aged eight in June 1910.

This personal tragedy might have been averted had Joyce been educated elsewhere, which increased their commitment to the area and its people. Two people who had given everything to improve the lives of those around them had lost their only child.

According to Fenner Brockway, the anti-war activist, Dr. Salter in his youth was known as the “Settlement firebrand – militant Republican, militant Socialist, militant Agnostic, militant Teetotaller, militant Pacifist.” Alfred Salter was a committed Christian and pacifist, a Quaker from 1900 onwards, and later an active member of the Peace Pledge Union.  He was a Pacificist throughout WW1 which as might be imagined was a brave, lonely and perhaps far-sighted principle for anyone to take in those days.  However with near a million deaths on amongst British and Commonwealth nations (excluding the Dominion nations such as Australia and Canada) after the war it became a very popular ideology and one that benefited him when he decided to stand as an MP for the Labour Party.

In the 1922 General Election, Alfred was elected to represent Bermondsey West, deciding that by entering politics he could bring about social change quicker and more effectively. Through his efforts play facilities were established at Long Lane, Tooley Street and Tanner Street. He prepared plans to replace tenements with lower density developments, such as Wilson Grove, which can still be seen today. Alfred successfully campaigned for a solarium to treat people with TB and children were sent to recuperate in Switzerland.

His wife Ada became the first woman Labour councillor in London and the first woman Labour mayor in the British Isles. All the couple’s political and social activities were undertaken to try to improve the life of their community. Their aim was to create better housing and proper water supplies in tenement blocks, school meals for children, the establishment of parks and the purchase of a convalescent home for Bermondsey people. They built the first public baths, swimming pools and special baths for babies, and were said to be “among the greatest personal contributors to social progress this century”.


Alfred and Ada Salter

Alfred and Ada Salter


He was one of the founders of the Socialist Medical Association and a friend of its President Somerville Hastings, with whom he made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1931.In 1936 he advocated the creation of a new League of Nations to which the possessions of the British Empire should be transferred. Salter believed appeasement could avert war with Germany, stating in November 1938 that “the average German will withdraw his backing from Hitler if we show willingness to be just”. The failure of appeasement and outbreak of World War II left Salter deeply depressed.Despite his constituency being heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz, he opposed the strategic bombing by the Royal Air Force Bomber Commandon moral grounds, one of the few Parliamentarians to do so, along with fellow Labour MP Richard Stokes and Bishop George Bell in the House of Lords.

Salter was a strong advocate of Guild Socialism and of associationalism. He was also a strong supporter of the Temperance Movement, i.e. abstaining from alcohol, and caused controversy when he spoke out against widespread drunkenness in the House of Commons. He supported free speech, and resigned from the Bermondsey Borough Labour Party and the local trades council when they organised a counter-demonstration to prevent the British Union of Fascists from holding a march in the borough.  He accused the trades council of being “Communist in sympathy and Fascist in methods”

He is still held in great esteem in Rotherhithe, and this was shown when Alfred’s statue was erected on a bench outside the Angel. Diane Gorvin’s statue showed Alfred waving to Joyce, who was leaning against the Thames wall with her cat nearby. It represented a daydream of the old doctor remembering happier times when Joyce was still alive.

They never overcame their grief but continued to dedicate themselves to their neighbourhood and when Ada died in 1942, Alfred wrote to a friend that “the loneliness is almost unbearable, but I have to learn to bear it.” He died only a few years later at Guy’s Hospital in 1945.

First created by artist, Diane Gorvin in 1991, ‘Dr Salter’s Daydream’ portrayed an elderly Dr Salter sitting on a bench, wistfully waving at an image of his daughter, imagining happier days, long gone by.

On the night of the 20th November 2011, the statue of Dr Salter was stolen.  Fortunately Southwark Council managed to store away the statue of the little daughter Joyce and her pet cat.  Despite a £1,000 reward, the statue was not to be returned.   However such is the love and respect for Dr Salter almost a century after his prime that the local community insisted that a replacement statue must be installed.  The cost would be £100,000, a not inconsiderable sum for what is still far from the wealthiest neighbour in London.  Despite this the funds were raised by local supporters and a new statue was created by the original artist and this time with the addition of the formidable Ada Salter too.

The Alfred Salter Primary School was opened in 1995 to meet the growing demand for school places in Rotherhithe, due to the redevelopment of the old Surrey Docks. The Ada Salter Garden is within the Old Surrey Docks area, near Southwark Park. The Alfred Salter Bridge is a footbridge leading off Watermans Lane, between Stave Hill and Redriff Road, near Greenland Dock as part of the Russia Dock Woodland.

The Ada Salter memorial rose garden, a little further east in Southwark Park.

The Ada Salter memorial rose garden, a little further east in Southwark Park. Photo by Chris Lordan

If you’d like to tour with me on this trail that will culminate inside the Mayflower pub with its famous connections with the Pilgrim Fathers who established the USA then visit


If you missed my first post on the area, you can read all about the The Angel Pub in Rotherhithe, which has a long and often murky history and is actually adjacent to the statue of Dr. Salter.  The second post is all about the notorious Jacobs island which incredibly is now a luxory housing and retail area whilst the third and  on the ruins of a manor house belonging to King Edward III which is also about 20 feet from the statues.  Don’t forget the most recent post on The Watch House Cafe with its fascinating, gory past and very yummy present and future.

Below you can see a short video made by a local historian on Dr Salter and this great work of modern art.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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10 Responses to Dr Alfred Salter – The man who created an NHS before the NHS was created

  1. Francis says:

    V interesting
    We were there a week ago and didnt realise the story behind the statues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I noticed that you’d been there recently. Were the poppies still on the statues? I wonder if my earlier posts on Rotherhithe helped you decide on visiting 🙂 I bet it will be absolutely freezing their today with the wind and snow flurries in the air.


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