Today, London has 32 Boroughs (plus the City of London), but before 1965, it was made up of a multitude of small boroughs, one of which was the Borough of Bermondsey.
Now subsumed into the super-borough of Southwark, Bermondsey was, a century ago, filled with warehouses, tanneries and docks stretching from London Bridge to Surrey Quays. It was an overcrowded area teeming with humanity where more than 120,000 people were crammed into crumbling, insanitary slums. For comparison, the 1961 census records that Bermondsey’s population had declined to just over 50,000.
The following is selected from my new book, London is a Forest, published in May 2019. It discusses the work of Ada Salter, her Beautification Committee and the trees she planted around Bermondsey.
Into this toxic environment an idealistic young woman arrived intent on transforming the lives of the area’s residents. By 1920 Ada Salter had become a Bermondsey councillor, and set about making ambitious changes. Together with her doctor husband, Alfred, they started improving housing, health and the environment. Ada set up a ‘Beautification Committee’ with the ambitious task of turning Bermondsey into a garden suburb. By 1930, 7,000 trees had been planted on the new estates and the streets of the borough.
Salter was the driving force behind the transformation of Bermondsey from industrial slum to green oasis. She was a quaker and an ethical socialist who felt her mission was to deal with the great iniquity of slum housing and the intolerable conditions in which the urban poor were forced to live. She arrived in Bermondsey as a social worker where she met her husband, Dr Alfred Salter. Together they lived in the slums among the people they represented and helped, he providing medical assistance to the poor and needy while she threw herself into alleviating social injustices affecting housing, health, worker’s and women’s rights.
Ada Salter became Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922, an important and powerful position back then. She was one of the first female mayors in the country, and was the first ever female Labour mayor. From this platform, she and her fellow councillors were able to set in motion a whole host of radical policies and reforms. Great strides in public health were made decades before the NHS existed, a programme of slum clearance alongside the erection of new homes, vastly improved sanitation, and public washing and laundry facilities were completed.
But perhaps Salter’s most long-lasting and far-reaching achievements were those of the ‘Beautification Committee’ she chaired from 1919. This innocuous sounding task force was driven by the compulsion that improving the environment was part and parcel of improving people’s lives, and that by raising aesthetic appreciation of their neighbourhoods, a sense of personal wellbeing and civic pride would be engendered. Salter’s ambition with the Beautification Committee was to turn Bermondsey into nothing less than a garden city.
This transformative vision for the borough can still be seen. Estates dating from these interwar years often have central green courtyards and balconies which, although less festooned nowadays, at one time would have been bedecked with window boxes. Elsewhere the legacy of thousands of trees planted all those decades ago can still be seen, Tower Bridge Road, Tooley Street and Jamaica Road are grand plane-lined thoroughfares, indeed virtually every street within the former borough is lined with trees.
Had it not been for the Great Depression of the early 1930s, many more workers cottages with gardens may have been built rather than the cheaper-to-construct flats that abound here. Wilson Grove and Janeway Street represent what might have been. These streets, completed in 1928, exemplify Salter’s utopian vision for ideal social housing to replace the slums. Rows of neat, faintly art deco garden-cottages were designed in consultation with local women who advised on the practical necessities required for their new homes. Greenery was at the heart of the development, gardening was encouraged, and trees lined the new streets. On Wilson Grove today, large, spreading Caucasian wingnuts (Pterocarya fraxinifolia) cast their shade. These handsome trees have big pinnate leaves (multiple leaflets on a single stem), and long, dangling seed clusters. They are unusual in London, particularly so as street trees because they require considerable space to reach their impressive potential. It could be that these individuals were planted in 1928, but, more likely, they are replacements for short-lived birches (Betula spp.) or trees of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) – the latter was Salter’s favourite species – that may well have been specified for Bermondsey’s high profile housing project. Intriguingly, trees of heaven and Caucasian wingnuts have similar leaves and are quite easily confused, particularly when they are saplings. Maybe then, Wilson Grove’s wingnuts were planted in error by a well-meaning but mistaken urban tree planter in decades past.
Not far away, on Druid Street, opposite the arches carrying the elevated railway lines from London Bridge, lies the Dr Alfred Salter Children’s Playground. Here, on a raised flower bed between the swings and flats of the Fair Street Estate (typical of Bermondsey’s low-rise interwar developments) a broad-crowned tree marks the vault where the ashes of Alfred and Ada Salter are interred. This is a tree of heaven, between 20-30 years old, and one of just a handful consciously planted in recent years. Ada Salter planted hundreds of them though and they are, perhaps, the species that defines the work of her Beautification Committee. Originating from China, they were introduced in the 1700s and have been in and out of fashion ever since. Originally they were an attractive curiosity: large trees with huge leaves almost resembling palm fronds, and conspicuous seeds, more or less red, appearing in the high canopies in late summer. In the nineteenth century, their pollution tolerance, rapid growth and easy propagation – seedlings and suckers can, remarkably, grow several metres in their first years – meant they were good candidates for planting in industrial cities.
By the early twentieth century, they were particularly recommended for planting in the grimier parts of east and south London for these reasons, and having encountered them in Paris, Salter was, apparently, smitten. They appeared to be the perfect tree for Bermondsey, and large trees from her era can still be seen today, Long Lane between Tower Bridge Road and Borough tube station is lined with fine, mature examples. While they are large and fast growing, they are also short-lived – in their dotage at seventy – so these trees may only have a few years left before they are replaced. When that time comes, they will no doubt be succeeded by a different species.
Since the mass planting days of the last century, trees of heaven have proven to be invasive, springing up in front gardens, railway embankments, cracks in walls and anywhere else they can find a niche. Unlike the misunderstood sycamore, there are many good reasons not to plant them. They barely support other species, they can cause structural damage, they can poison other plants, and their abundant seeds produce an overpowering or according to some, appalling, smell. In North America they have become known as the ‘ghetto palm’, a reference to their giant leaves and propensity to quickly colonise unused lots.
Graham Taylor’s excellent biography: Ada Salter, Pioneer of Ethical Socialism.
Fenner Brockway’s biography of Alfred Salter, now out of print. Bermondsey Story; the life of Alfred Salter.
Mark Johnston’s important work, Street Trees in Britain: A History contains a section entitled Bermondsey and the Salters
July 20th would have been Ada Salter’s birthday, and to celebrate her legacy, the Cherry Garden TRA is throwing a birthday party in 2019 at which I shall be leading a walk around Wilson Grove and speaking about her environmental legacy.