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PETER FROST invokes the memory of two Labour activists who were miles ahead of their time

As a Londoner I’ve always loved the London river. Some of my earliest memories are of high days and holidays, if mum and dad had a bob or two, taking the paddle steamer from Tower pier for a day trip to Southend.

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Later as a young communist I’d be selling the YCL magazine Challenge at some of Jack Dash — the communist docker’s leader’s — early morning dock gate meetings down by the river.

When I started to help write and design the magazine in the 1960’s we were proud when Dash sent our team a greeting to publish in the magazine.

The Daily Mirror screamed about Dash (below) on their front page. They called him the “Most dangerous man in Britain.” 

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Those anti-union Mirror editors have long been forgotten but London’s East Enders still enjoy the community centre and art gallery that honours this working-class hero at Jack Dash House in London’s Isle of Dogs. 

In later years, each summer I’d take my son on the boat trip down to Greenwich and tell him tales about the rich history of London’s river. 

Later still, occasionally I’d get afloat. It’s an amazing feeling taking a small boat under Tower Bridge and I’ll never forget the day they opened the bridge to let the ancient brown, sailed Thames barge I was helping to crew sweep through.

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A few years ago some old friends moved to a house in Bermondsey. It is situated on a spot that used to be occupied by Cherry Gardens Pleasure Grounds where in the late 1600s diarist Samuel Pepys bought his wife cherries to make amends for one of his many extra-marital dalliances.

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Just beside the pier was a bench and it was wonderful to sit there on a balmy evening and watch the river traffic passing by with the splendid sight of Tower Bridge in the distance.

There on the bench — whenever I sat down — was an old man in a trilby hat. He never moved and he never spoke. Not surprising really as he was cast in bronze.

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The statue  was of Dr Alfred Salter, socialist and Labour MP, old and weary after a lifetime of struggle for London’s poor. 

He sat there looking at the one person he couldn’t help — his only daughter Joyce (the two are pictured below) who died of scarlet fever aged just nine. 

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On our bench Salter and I watched his child and her cat — also cast in bronze — playing beside the river.

Then suddenly a year or so ago Dr Salter was gone — stolen by despicable scrap metal thieves. 

In 1900 Alfred Salter and his wife Ada, both doctors, set up a free health centre in Bermondsey long before the NHS had been thought of. 

They soon realised that charity was not enough and involved themselves in local politics. Dr Salter was elected as a councillor for the Progressive Party — a Liberal front. 

It didn’t take long for the Salters to discover that, just like today, Liberal politics have far more to do with power than with principle.

In 1908 he and his wife Ada joined the Independent Labour Party. Ada and Alfred were elected to the LCC in 1919 but it was Ada who focused on LCC work after Alfred was elected the Labour MP in 1922.

He held the seat with a short break until World War II. Ada was elected the first ever female Labour mayor anywhere in Britain. 

Ada not only helped to make the LCC a progressive force but in Bermondsey she set up her world-famous Beautification Committee to demolish the slums, plant trees in every street and build green playgrounds for working-class kids. 

Thanks to Ada, Bermondsey is still one of London’s greenest boroughs today. Here are Ada and Alfred planting a tree in Bermondsey.

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The local community has determined it won’t let the memories of these two working-class heroes die. After a lot of effort they are close to achieving their aim to replace the sculpture of Dr Salter and also add Ada to the bench. 

Over £45,000 has already been pledged — much from the trades union movement — towards the £50,000 target. If you would like to help or just find out more you can visit http://www.salterstatues.co.uk

This article was first published in the Morning Star 6 June 2014

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