Friday, November 28, 2014

Two Women of Worth

MINNIE LANSBURY on her way to arrest.

The other evening I heard an interesting, indeed inspiring, talk about Minnie Lansbury, who was one of the rebel Labour councillors in the London Borough of Poplar who went  to  prison rather than deprive local people of services or impose a heavy tax burden on the poor.

The speaker was Janine Booth, an RMT trade union member and author of "Guilty and Proud Of It!", about the Poplar councillors, just back from doing some further research in Holland, and with her enthusiasm and illustrations she really brought her subject to life.

Born in 1888, the year of the great matchgirls strike which launched the New Trade unionism in the East End, Minnie Glassman was one of seven siblings, her family Jewish immigrants  who had fled the poverty and persecution of Czarist Russia.

 Her father, Isaac Glassman was a boot finisher, who might work 13-14 hours a day, when there was work to be had. As this trade declined, he managed to become a coal merchant, delivering with his horse and cart around the East End.  On one occasion, in Stratford, he was attacked by two men in the street, for no apparent reason other perhaps than that they recognised him as a Jew.

On May 20, 1913, Isaac was able to pay his £5 fee to become a naturalised British citizen, entitled to vote.   Minnie's mother Annie did not bother. She would not have been given a vote anyway -there were still five years and a world war to go before women achived that, and then incompletely.

But Minnie was not one to wait.  Having become a teacher in a London County Council school for a grand £7 a month, she joined the National Union of Teachers, and in 1911 and 1913 her East London branch discussed motions for equal pay for women - at that time more than two thirds of the profession - passing one second time around.  That too did not become official union policy till after the War.  Meanwhile Minnie Glassman also joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) - she became a Suffragette.

With the outbreak of the First World War, the leaders of the Suffrage movement, the Pankhursts, were swept into the patriotic tide - except for Sylvia, working in the East End of London, who refused to suspend her campaign for women's rights or her socialist opposition to the war. Her East London WSPU, which was also Minnie Glassman's branch of course, was expelled.

While Christabel Pankhurst and her allies distributed white feathers, and campaigned for conscription, and internment of aliens, it was Sylvia Pankhurst and her supporters like Minnie Glassman in the East End who made sure soldiers' children were fed, campaigning for wives to receive payments and widows their pensions, and against price rises and profiteering. They re-opened a run down pub as the Mother's Arms, providing cheap nutritious meals. They supported refugees against being deported back to Russia to serve in the Czar's army.

 Minnie, who had married George Lansbury's son Edgar in 1914, carried on teaching, but she became particularly well-known and liked for her work on war pensions.

The East London suffragettes differed from the national WSPU in another respect. They recognised that not just women but many male workers too still did not have the vote, and decided this too was their business.  The East London branch became the Workers Suffrage Union, adopting a class point of view, and its paper changed its name from Women's Dreadnought to Workers' Dreadnought. They held some lively meetings at the dock gates.

Both Sylvia Pankhurst and Minnie Lansbury welcomed the Russian Revolution, and in their own ways became Communists, but they came to differ about what was to be learned from it.  Sylvia had seen enough of right-wing Labour opportunism and support for the war, and despite campaigning so long for the vote, distrusted anything to do with parliament or resembling reformism. In vain did Lenin, seeing such fervour as a childhood malady of the new Communists, seek to persuade her to have anything to do with the Labour Party.

Young Minnie, on the other hand, perhaps from being closer to the working class (and less personally scarred than Sylvia), rather than theoretical grounding, saw the opportunity to continue the kind of struggles she had engaged in, and make some gains, not for herself, but for the working class.  The Labour Party had not yet bolted its doors against the Communists. With George Lansbury leading the Labour Party in Poplar, and taking  the council, Edgar became a councillor and  Minnie was made an alderman.

Poplar was one of the poorest areas of London, and its low-paid workers were hit by post-war recession and lay-offs. The council, introducing a number of impovements from equal pay for women and a minimum wage for council workers, to free school meals for poor children, and heating the water in the second-class dwimming baths. It brought in electrification, and it wanted to launch public works for the unemployed, but the government refused funding. The council had to find money for poor relief -unemployment benefit - in those days. With so much low rent, low rateable value property in the borough, it also had to raise a precept, just like Kensington or Chelsea, to such costs as the Metropolitan Police.

It was the Poplar councillors' defiant decision in 1921 not to raise this money, in order to challenge this unfair funding and demand "equalisation of rates", which led to their imprisonment. They marched to jail heads held high, and cheered by supporters. They were able to hold council meetings in prison, and George Lansbury addressed crowds outside through the bars of his cell.

Although the Labour Party leadership condemned their action, two other east London boroughs decided  to join Poplar's lead. Eventually, the councilors were released, and the government rushed through measures to ease the burden, including £250,000 a year subsidy to Poplar.

Alas, though she had gone to prison in high spirits, Minnie's health suffered from the conditions inside, and she died on January 1, 1922, of pneumonia and infuenza. When her death was announced at a rally, people broke down in tears.

The working class had lost a fine, heroic fighter.

After her death, Edgar Lansbury married again, to actress Moyna Macgill. He served as mayor of Poplar from 1924-5.  That year the couple had a daughter Angela Lansbury.  A memorial clock to Minnie Lansbury was put up on Electric House, Bow Road. When it was restored in 2008, actress Angela Lansbury was proud to contribute, and send a message of support.

MINNIE LANSBURY'S CLOCK  on Bow Road, E3.  Edgar's daughter, actress Angela Lansbury, contributed to restoration.

Meanwhile, Across the River... 

 Unlike Minnie Glassman, Ada Brown was not born in the East End or South London, but in a small Northamptonshie town called Raunds. Coming to London to work among the poor, Ada joined the West London Mission, then in  1897 transferred to the Bermondsey Settlement. There she met Alfred Salter, then a student at Guy's Hospital. It is said that he converted her to socialism and she encouraged him to become a Christian, though Alfred too came from a religious family. They joined the Peckham branch of the Society of Friends (Quakers) together, and were married on 22 August 1900.

Alfred Salter set up a low-cost medical practice in Bermondsey, and in his first week made 12 shillings and sixpence, but he soon needed to expand this practice as more patients came.  Offering services free to those who could not pay, Dr. Salter also pioneered mutual health insurance schemes and adult education classes on health matters.

Though they had joined the Liberal Party to seek improvements in the area, the Salters decided to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led by James Keir Hardy in 1908. In November 1910 the ILP nominated seven candidates for the borough council elections in Bermondsey. Only one, Ada Salter was elected, becoming the first woman councillor in London. Personal tragedy struck when the couple's daughter Joyce – then eight years old – died of scarlet fever.  Perhaps if they had not chosen to live in the poor inner city and send their daughter to the local school this might not have happened. Ada was defeated in the elections of 1912.

However, the Salters did not give up. Ada Salter was re-elected to the councilin 1919, and in the 1922 General Election Alfred Salter, was elected MP for  Bermondsey West. The Labour Party also had the largest number of seats on the Bermondsey Borough. Ada 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, it could do something about public health, which Alfred Salter had recognised as a priority. It launched a campaign,  with special films which were shown to large crowds in the open air,  and pamphlets 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,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."

The Salters had acquired a convalescent home in Kent for Bermondsey people, and Alfred Salter also campaigned successfully to obtain a solarium for TB patients. Some children with tubercolosis were even sent to Switzerland for fresh air, while for healthier youngsters the council established a number of local play grounds. Dr.Salter had been one of the founders of  what became the Socialist Medical Association and in 1931 he visited the Soviet Union with its President Somerville Hastings.

Ada Salter claimed to know nothing about her husband's speciality, health, but she made her own contribution to improving life in Bermondsey, and London, by her passion for having trees planted in city streets, and gardens. Though Alfred Salter resigned from Bermondsey Borough Council in 1931, Ada remained, continuing her effort  to make Bermondsey into a Garden City.

Fenner Brockway, wrote about the progress made by 1937:
"By this time Bermondsey's trees and flowers were famous. Travelling on the Southern Railway by the long viaduct which crosses the borough passengers noted with wonder the avenues of green between the crowded buildings, the beds of tulips or dahlias in the gaps between the houses, the climbing roses on the balconies of the tenements. Films of the streets, gardens and churchyards were shown all over the world and some American visitors included them with Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London in the sights of London."

Elected to the London County Council in 1925, Ada Salter became Chair of the Parks Committee in 1934, and worked on behalf of the introduction of a Green Belt.


During the First World War Ada and Alfred Salter worked for the Non-Conscription Fellowship. Ada  was also active in the Women's Labour League. At the end of the war she was amongst the British delegation to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom conventions in Zürich and Vienna. 

The Quaker pacifist faith which had strengthened the couple's resolve during one world conflict was less helpful as a guide as a new one loomed. Alfred Salter fell out with fellow socialists in Bermondsey in 1937 when they mobilised to block the way to Mosley's fascists, in the Battle of Long Lane.  He also believed somewhat naively that appeasement might avert war with Germany, though unlike Tory appeasers who sympathised with Hitler, Salter hoped that ordinary Germans could be encouraged to turn away from the fuhrer. Perhaps he did not fully grasp what was happening to anti-Nazi Germans. During the war, to his credit, Dr.Salter was one of the few political voices against indiscriminate mass bombing of civilians.   

Ada Salter died on 5th December, 1942. Alfred 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."

Whatever we think of Alfred and Ada Salter's overall politics, what endeared them to local people and remains in memory was their dedicated effort to raise the health and quality of life of working people, and replace ugly slums with their vision of a garden city.

A rose garden, opened in 1936 within the Old Surrey Docks area (near Southwark Park),was spontaneously referred to as the 'Ada Salter Garden' from the start, and in June 1943 the name was formally recognised by the LCC.  A Salter Memorial Lecture is promoted by the Quaker Socialist Society each year

After a statue of Alfred Salter, seated on a park bench, was stolen in November 2011, probably for its scrap value, plans were made to replace it with statues of both Alfred and Ada, and of the dayghter they lost. A campaign was launched to raise £50,000 for this, and my own trades council in Brent was one of many labour movement bodies which contributed. Southwark borough council, which nowadays includes the Bermondsey area, agreed to match what was raised.   

The new statue of Ada Salter is to be unveiled at 2pm on Sunday, November 30, at Bermondsey Wall East SE16.

GARDENS IN DOCKLAND part of legacy by which Ada Salter is remembered.

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