Alfred Salter, the son of Walter Hookway Salter and Elizabeth Jester, was born in Greenwich on 16th June 1873. His father was an administrative officer with the Metropolitan Gas Company. Both his parents were very religious. At first they were Wesleyans but later joined the Plymouth Brethren.
In 1882 joined the Band of Hope and his commitment to temperance remained for the rest of his life. He attended the John Roan School in Greenwich and at the age of sixteen he took part in a competition that would provide him with £50 a year for three years to study at Guy's Hospital. He won the competition and in 1889 became a medical student.
Salter became interested in politics and after reading the works of Edward Bellamy, Karl Marx and H. M. Hyndman, became a committed socialist. In 1890, aged seventeen, he joined the Social Democratic Federation. However, he only remained a few months before leaving to join the Fabian Society.
Salter was an outstanding student and the Guy's Hospital Gazette reported: "Dr. Alfred Salter, having already won scholarships, prizes and two gold medals at the London University... has been awarded the Golding-Bird Gold Medal and Scholarship... We offer him our heartiest congratulations and continue to speculate upon the possibilities of his future career."
As a student he had also visited homes in working-class Bermondsey. The poverty he encountered only reinforced his commitment to socialism. An outstanding student in 1897 he became house physician and resident obstetric physician at Guy's Hospital. The following year he went to live in the Bermondsey Settlement, that 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".
According to his friend, Fenner Brockway: "He was known as the Settlement firebrand - militant Republican, militant Socialist, militant Agnostic, militant Teetotaller, militant Pacifist." On the outbreak of the Boer War he became an energetic supporter of David Lloyd George and the Radical section of the Liberal Party and James Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party who opposed it.
While working at the Bermondsey Settlement he met and fell in love with Ada Brown, who was the leader of the Mothers' Meeting and had responsibility for the Girls' Club. He converted her to socialism and she encouraged him to become a Christian. As his biographer has pointed out: "Returning now to a study of the life and teaching of Christ, he found that pacifism, a love for all, an utter repudiation of violence, a realisation that the only way to overcome an enemy is to convert him into a friend - that this philosophy illuminated everything that Christ said and did, and supremely his non-resistance at the time of his arrest, trial and crucifixion." Both now joined the Peckham branch of the Society of Friends.
They both decided they should dedicate their lives to helping the poor. On 16th July 1899 Alfred wrote to Ada Brown: "I have been paying numerous visits to derelict families all the afternoon and evening. Several of the homes I have just been into have made me feel aghast at my helplessness and powerlessness to lift their occupants out of their existing poverty and squalor. Oh, the cruelty and wickedness of our society today! - to thrust down these people by means of low wages and chronic unemployment into hopeless despair, and then to leave them in that condition with no organised or conscious effort to rehabilitate them. What can we do? Only to keep peg, peg, pegging away until we make the decent members of society understand the meaning of exploitation. You and I feel that we have the same mission in life and the same consciousness of the ends, objects and consequences of that mission. 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."
Alfred and Ada Salter decided to devote their lives to the people of Bermondsey and he established a general medical practice in the area. Salter rented out a shop on Jamaica Road and turned it into a surgery. They were married at Raunds on 22nd August 1900. Fenner Brockway has argued: "In Jamaica Road they began the partnership which was to bring something little short of a revolution to Bermondsey and its people."
Salter's takings during the first week amounted to 12s. 6d. As one source points out: "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 the way in which he gave it, it was the energy with which he insisted on beds in hospitals for urgent cases." Salter was so successful that he soon needed to recruit four other doctors to the surgery. They were chosen because they shared his basic values of Christian Socialism. Salter ran the surgery as a local cooperative and the five doctors shared their takings equally.
On 5th June, 1902, Ada gave birth to Joyce. Four years later they rented out a house in Storks Road. According to Fenner Brockway it "was a grimy three-storied building, with a basement and yard, overhung by a large factory." A friend, Albert Dawson wrote: "Dr. Salter is not a reposeful man; he is too high-spirited and vigorous, and lives at the top of his form, but the gentle sweetness and serenity of Mrs. Salter balance her husband's energy and strength."
Under the influence of John Scott Lidgett, Salter joined the Liberal Party. He was elected to the Bermondsey borough council in 1903, and two years later became a member of the London County Council (LCC). Although a devout Christian, Salter was against the idea of the State getting involved with education: "You cannot make religious teaching of any sort - denominational or undenominational - a charge upon the common purse without violating the conscientious feelings of one or other section of the community. If it is unjust to force payment from a Nonconformist for the maintenance of the few schools where Roman Catholic teaching is given, it is more unjust to force the R.C.s to pay for the maintenance of the far more numerous schools where undenominational Protestant teaching is given. Surely, too, it is equally unjust to compel the agnostic to contribute to any school where Christian doctrines are taught. We must go back to the historic Nonconformist position that religious belief is a matter for the individual conscience and the State must not meddle there."
Ada and Alfred Salter gradually grew disillusioned with the Liberal Party's lack of radicalism and in May 1908 they joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).This was partly because of the leadership of James Keir Hardie and his policies of "the school-feeding of hungry children, for old-age pensions, for the maintenance of the unemployed." They joined with twelve friends to establish a ILP branch in Bermondsey.
In June 1910, Alfred's daughter, Joyce, caught scarlet fever. She became seriously ill and was admitted to the South-Western Fever Hospital. Joyce was adored in Bermondsey, everyone calling her "our little ray of sunshine". There were so many enquiries that bulletins had to be placed at regular intervals on the front door of their home. Unfortunately she died and according to their friend, Fenner Brockway: "It needed all their faith to live through this test. Ada's sadness never quite left her; it was in her eyes and in her expression all through the years. Alfred changed from the boisterously cheerful crusader to a man who seemed constantly in the presence of sorrow: months passed before he smiled and it was years before the gay, bubbling laughter returned. Joyce's portrait, on the mantelpiece in his study, was decorated by Ada with flowers or ivy every day: right to the end of their working lives this practice was observed. The sense of loss was intensified as the years passed by the disappointment that Joyce remained their only child."
Alfred Salter was the Independent Labour Party candidate in the 1910 General Election. As Paul Thompson pointed out in his book, Socialist, Liberals and Labour (1967): "During the last week before the election the window-cards displayed in favour of the Labour candidate were widely replaced by Liberal cards, and among those who voted against Salter were two of the electors who had signed his nomination forms and a parson who had sent a telegram of support to his adoption meeting. The result was a Conservative victory, with Salter in third place. The I.L.P. National Council decided not to support another fight at the General Election."
In November 1910, the Independent Labour Party nominated seven candidates for the Borough Council elections. However, only one, Ada Salter, was elected. She therefore became the first woman councillor in London. That night the ILP had a party in Bermondsey where they discussed their plans for the future. Alfred Salter said: "We'll pull down three-quarters of Bermondsey and build a garden city in its place."
In 1912 Salter was a founder member of the State Medical Service Association (SMSA) where he advocated the "democratisation" of the medical profession. Other members included Somerville Hastings, Hyacinth Morgan and Christopher Addison. The main thing that this group argued for was for preventive medicine and improved public health measures.
Alfred Salter and the Bermondsey ILP arranged for a series of Thursday evening lectures. This included visits by Margaret MacMillan, Bruce Glasier, Katherine Glasier, Charlotte Despard, G. D. H. Cole, Clement Attlee, Jessie Stephen, Herbert Morrison, George Lansbury, William Anderson and H. H. Slesser.
Ada Salter was active in the campaign for women's suffrage. In 1913 she was re-elected to the Bermondsey County Council. However, Alfred Salter and the other 13 ILP candidates were defeated. That night the ILP had a party in Bermondsey where they discussed their plans for the future. Alfred Salter said: "We'll pull down three-quarters of Bermondsey and build a garden city in its place."
As a pacifist, Salter was a strong opponent of the First World War. On 24th September 1914 he wrote in The Labour Leader: "I believe that all killing is murder and is wrong". He then published a pamphlet, Faith of a Pacifist, that sold over a million copies. It was translated into most European languages and was clandestinely distributed in Germany.
Salter joined the No-Conscription Fellowship, an organisation formed by two pacifists, Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway. The NCF encouraged men to refuse war service and required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." Other members included Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Bruce Glasier, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman, William Mellor, Arthur Ponsonby, Guy Aldred, Duncan Grant, Herbert Morrison, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Cyril Joad, Alfred Mason, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon, William Wheeldon, John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Hettie Wheeldon, Storm Jameson, Duncan Grant and Max Plowman.
Salter formed a Bermondsey branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship. After making several anti-war speeches the local newspaper asked: "Is Dr. Salter Pro-German?" Several of his patients sent letters to the newspaper defending their doctor. One wrote: "When my father and I were both so ill that we thought there was no hope for either of us. Dr. Salter attended us night and day, although he knew his chances of being paid were very small. There are many other poor people in Bermondsey who have cause to be grateful to him." This general affection for the doctor among the people led local editors and political opponents to refrain from the viciousness which they voiced towards other opponents of the war.. As the author of Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter (1949) pointed out: "The truth was that the main feeling in Bermondsey was respect for Salter as a man and a doctor rather than as a pacifist... This general affection for the doctor among the people led local editors and political opponents to refrain from the viciousness which they voiced towards other opponents of the war."
By July 1916, nineteen members of the Bermondsey group were in prison as conscientious objectors. Others agreed to work as farm labourers. This included Herbert Morrison, who became a land worker at Norton, near Letchworth. When he was asked by the Wandsworth Tribunal if he belonged to any religious denomination, he replied, "I belong to the ILP and Socialism is my religion."
Salter visited members of the No-Conscription Fellowship in prison. This included Isaac Hall, the grandchild of a slave on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, who was sent to Pentonville Prison: "I was horrified at the spectacle of a living skeleton-a gaunt, bent, starved, broken man, a coal-black man with ashen lips and sunken eyes. But he was broken only in body; his soul land spirit were as resolute as ever. One of the warders told me that Isaac Hall was the bravest man he had ever met." Salter took up Hall's case and after successfully obtaining his release he took him home to Storks Road where "he was sheltered for nine months until a passage back to the West Indies could be secured."
At the 1917 Independent Labour Party Conference Salter argued: "There is no greater fallacy than to think that you can secure good results by using bad means". However, the anti-war stance of the ILP resulted in a loss of support in Bermondsey. Salter wrote: "For a while it seemed as if the whole fabric of our organisation so laboriously built up in the past years, was doomed to go under. We were the most unpopular section in the borough."
By 1918 Salter's medical practice had increased so rapidly that there were over 12,000 names on its books. The Lancet reported that "the queues who waited for his arrival emphasised the need to import more doctors into the slums". As the author of Bermondsey Story: The Life of Alfred Salter (1949) pointed out: "He spent hours every day cycling from one street to another visiting patients who could not attend the surgery: the rigid, upright figure, mounting his bicycle like a statue, arms stretched unbent to the unusually lofty handle-bars, soft hat, blue serge suit, jacket tightly buttoned, pockets bulging, was the most familiar of all sights in Bermondsey's streets."
In the 1922 General Election Salter was elected to represent Bermondsey West in the House of Commons. He lost the seat in the December 1923 General Election but won it back in the 1924 General Election. He made a strong impression on Parliament where he campaigned passionately for the Temperance Movement.
A fellow MP, Fenner Brockway, described Salter in the following way: "In appearance he was distinctive. Looking down from the public gallery, strangers often asked who he was: this tall, straight-backed figure, with large domed head, bald as an egg except above the cars, clear-cut and clean-shaven features, sensitive mouth, direct-looking eyes which pince-nez did not dim. There was character in his stance, sincerity in his expression, and intellectual quality in everything about him."
The Labour Party also had the largest number of seats on the Bermondsey Borough. Ada Salter now became London's first woman Mayor. As a socialist she declined to wear Mayoral robes or the chain of office. With a Labour majority on the council, Ada could now push on with her plans to improve the look of Bermondsey. A Borough Gardens Superintendent was employed and ordered to plant elms, populars, planes and acacias in the streets of Bermondsey. Later he added birch, ash, yew and wild cherry.
The new Labour council also launched a campaign to improve public health in Bermondsey. Special films were prepared and were shown to large crowds in the open air and pamphlets were distributed throughout the borough. A systematic house-to-house inspection was conducted to seek out conditions dangerous to health. Premises where food was sold were constantly examined and samples of foods were taken away for analysis.
The people of Bermondsey welcomed the actions taken by the local council. In the 1925 elections, it established a national record when every seat on the Borough Council and the Board of Guardians returned Labour members. The parliamentary seat and the two London County Council seats were also held by the party.
When the Labour Party took office in 1922 the death-rate was 16.7 per 1,000. By 1927 it had fallen to 12.9. In 1922 the number of new cases of tuberculosis was 413. In 1927 it was 294. Deaths from the disease fell from 206 to 175. Alfred Salter claimed "Though Bermondsey is an overcrowded industrial area, with few amenities and a poor population living under great residential and economic disadvantages, yet if the death rate continues to diminish at the present rate, the borough will be entitled in a few years to be regarded as one of Britain's health resorts. Day in, day out, year in, year out, this wonderful preventive work, scientifically organised and directed by trained brains, is going on like clockwork. The Labour majority in the Council intend to employ any and every means to stamp out preventable illness."
In March 1926 Salter was taken ill. His doctor told him he was suffering from exhaustion and as a result he spent a month on holiday in Switzerland. He later argued: " While I was in bed I received the best medical and nursing attention, the most appropriate diet, every possible comfort, the removal of all anxiety about my work and outside duties. My income did not suddenly stop, and there was no uncertainty as to whether my means of livelihood would be still open to me when I was fit again. Better men than I, men and women far more deserving of reward at the hand of society than I can ever be, are ill at this minute and are not receiving the comforts and attentions that are necessary to win them back to life.... It is wrong. It is a shame. It is damnably unfair.
Salter returned to Britain in order to give his support to union members during the General Strike. In a speech he praised the people from Bermondsey for helping them in their struggle: "Something happened that had never happened in the world before. Millions of men and women deliberately risked their livelihood, their future, their all, to win a living wage for their miner comrades... I felt humbled and overwhelmed when I saw what was happening. A transformation of character seemed to be taking place. Small men suddenly became great, mean men became generous, cowardly men became heroes... I can never pay high enough tribute to the Bermondsey folk amongst whom I moved during those never-to-be-forgotten nine days. The working people of this district are capable of the mightiest acts of effort and heroism if only their best instincts can be touched and roused."
In October 1926 Salter made a attack on the drinking habits of fellow MPs. "I have seen members of all parties in the House, my own party included, I regret to say, drunk in the House, not on one occasion, but on many occasions. I consider it a scandalous thing that while Parliament imposes definite restrictions in regard to the drinking habits of persons outside," he concluded, "it allows members inside to obtain drinks at all times of the day and night."
Some members of the Conservative Party called for him to withdraw his remarks. He refused and the House of Commons found him guilty of making offensive comments but dared not inflict any punishment on him. The Daily News reported: " We cannot find among the oldest members who were present any recollection of a member, when challenged by the House on a question of privilege, absolutely standing by what he has said, as did Dr. Salter. In this respect his speech was epoch-making." The Daily Express added: "Dr. Salter showed great strength of character. However irritated the majority were, they had to give grudging admiration to his steadfast refusal to apologise."
Salter increased his majority in the 1929 General Election. For the first time the Labour Party was the largest party and its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, became the prime minister. Salter was not considered for ministerial office as he made it clear as a pacifist he would vote against the government over defence spending.
However, Salter refused to rebel over other issues. James Maxton, John Wheatley, Fenner Brockway, and other leaders of the Independent Labour Party urged the government "to introduce a full-fledged socialist programme". Salter disagreed with this approach. ""Socialists are at present only a fraction of the total electorate of the country. Labour candidates at the last General Election polled eight million votes, but probably convinced Socialists do not number more than four or at the most five millions out of the 25 millions of people on the registers... Socialist measures will be introduced when there is a socialist majority in the House of Commons and when there is a socialist majority in the nation. Not till then. That is why I spend all the time and energy I can spare to the job of preaching Socialism and making Socialists."
In 1930 Dr Charles Brook met Dr Ewald Fabian, the editor of Der Sozialistische Arzt and the head of Verbandes Sozialistischer Aerzte in Germany. Fabian said he was surprised that Britain did not have an organisation that represented socialists in the medical profession. Brook responded by arranging a meeting to take place on 21st September 1930 at the National Labour Club. As a result it was decided to form the Socialist Medical Association. Brook was appointed as Secretary of the SMA and Somerville Hastings became the first President. Other early members included Alfred Salter, Hyacinth Morgan, Reginald Saxton, Alex Tudor-Hart, Archie Cochrane, Christopher Addison, John Baird, Barnett Stross, Edith Summerskill, Robert Forgan and Richard Doll.
The Socialist Medical Association agreed a constitution in November 1930, "incorporating the basic aims of a socialised medical service, free and open to all, and the promotion of a high standard of health for the people of Britain". The SMA also committed itself to the dissemination of socialism within the medical profession. The SMA was open to all doctors and members of allied professions, such as dentists, nurses and pharmacists, who were socialists and subscribed to its aims. International links were established through the International Socialist Medical Association, based in Prague, an organisation that had been established by Dr Ewald Fabian.
Harold Laski invited Salter and Somerville Hastings to join a Fabian Research Bureau on the Soviet Union. In 1931 Salter and Hastings visited the country and afterwards praised the country's health centres "commending especially their apparent efficiency, medical division of labour, and preventive as well as curative functions." However, Salter disliked some aspects of what was going on in the Soviet Union. "The absolute and ruthless suppression of all views contrary to those held by the Government clique may be necessary during a short period of revolutionary history, but the perpetuation of tyranny of this sort, with no prospect for years to come of freedom of speech, thought or action, represents a condition which is intolerable and unthinkable to a democratically-minded man."
The election of the Labour Government in 1929 coincided with an economic depression and Ramsay MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problem. When the May Committee produced its report in July, 1931, it suggested that the government should reduce its expenditure by £97,000,000, including a £67,000,000 cut in unemployment benefits. MacDonald, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted the report but when the matter was discussed by the Cabinet, the majority voted against the measures suggested by Sir George May.
MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government. MacDonald was determined to continue and his National Government introduced the measures that had been rejected by the previous Labour Cabinet.
Salter voted to expel MacDonald from the Labour Party. Only fifteen other MPs disagreed with Salter. MacDonald had expected to split the party, but not a single local Labour Party decided to support him. Salter described the Labour members of the National Government as "renegades" and claimed that it was a "great triumph" that the party remained united.
The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. Alfred Salter, along with Clement Attlee and George Lansbury, were the only three returned in London. Salter beat the Conservative Party candidate by only 91 votes. Walter Hannington, the Communist Party of Great Britain candidate obtained 883 votes.
MacDonald, now had 556 pro-National Government MPs and had no difficulty pursuing the policies suggested by Sir George May. George Lansbury became the new leader of the Labour Party. As David Howell has pointed out: "Within the small post-1931 Parliamentary Labour Party Salter felt unusually comfortable. He admired Lansbury's leadership, and on international issues the party seemed closer to his own position. In the Commons he led effectively for the parliamentary party on a variety of issues. However, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the Labour Party's debate over sanctions marked the beginning of a deepening political isolation. At the party's conference in 1935 he supported Lansbury's pacifist position. Subsequently he was a leading figure in the parliamentary pacifist group."
Salter remained a staunch republican. In May 1935 he wrote: "I have no liking for emperors, kings, lords, dukes and the whole pompous entourage of royalty. You can't have kings without courts, or courts without courtiers. You can't have kingship without an aristocracy or without rank and precedence and all the rest of it. You can't have it without upper classes and lower classes. I stand for equality. Royalty means the perpetuation of inequality."
Salter joined the Peace Pledge Union. He argued that "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children." Salter and George Lansbury went on a peace-tour of the United States. He estimated that he "spoke in the presence of two hundred thousand people, and over the wireless his voice reached tens of millions more." They also had meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State.
Salter's pacifism was so strong that he became a supporter of appeasement. After the Munich Agreement he insisted that "the average German will withdraw his backing from Hitler if we show willingness to be just". He added: "I denounce Hitler's brutal methods as much as anyone, but there is no cause on earth that is worth the sacrifice of the blood and lives of millions upon millions of innocent and helpless men, women and children.... We and France made Hitler and put him where he is. Our policy of refusing justice to the defeated Powers after the Great War prepared the minds of the German people to support him and gave him his case. Our present attitude helps to rally them behind him today."
Ada gave an interview to The Evening News in July, 1939, about her marriage and political work. "I don't know anything about medicine and I've never thought of standing for Parliament, but then he doesn't garden, to even things up. One thing we don't share is a study. He has such a stock of books and papers that when I have letters to write I borrow his secretary's room... I don't know what it would be like to have two politicians in the home who take opposite views, but we two, who have the same opinions, but different fields of administration, find it very satisfactory indeed."
The outbreak the Second World War greatly distressed Salter. As his friend Fenner Brockway pointed out: "For the first time during his life he was in utter despair. He had not believed the disaster would come; until the very last moment, publicly and privately, he had declared confidently that the final fatal step would not be taken. Despite the increasing threats and mounting war preparations, he believed that Hitler would shrink from the last move and that Europe's statesmen would agree to the world conference which he and his pacifist colleagues had urged with extending and influential support. Salter's friends had never before seen him broken in this way. He, had exhausted himself in efforts to save the peace and was physically ill; the realisation that he had failed now crushed his mind and spirit as well."
During the Blitz the Salter's house in Storks Road was bombed during an air-raid. The windows were shattered and the ceilings collapsed. Ada and Alfred were unhurt but they were forced to move in with her sister in Balham.
George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, opposed the idea of area bombing of Nazi Germany. Bell obtained no support from the House of Lords, but Salter and Richard Stokes in the House of Commons agreed with him. Salter argued: "All this is founded on the great and terrible fallacy that ends justify means. They never do. Is there no pity in the whole world? Are all our hearts hardened and coarsened by events?"
Ada Salter died on 5th December, 1942. Salter wrote a month later: "The loneliness grows deeper and has not lessened in the slightest with the lapse of time. Sometimes it is almost unbearable, but I have to learn to bear it."