Salter Lecture 2016 – Red Flag over Bermondsey: The Ada Salter story

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The below is the script to a one woman show, written and performed by performed by Lynn Morris of the Journeyman Theatre company as the Salter Lecture.

(Big Ben and London church bells pealing out the New Year. Soundscape of clocks ticking, coughing intermittently within the house)

Scene 1:  Ada stands in her undershift

New Year. Bermondsey 1922. Number 5 Storks Road. This is a house that is never entirely still. Outside the river traffic has ceased-in the distance …. the splutter of petrol engines, a few horses’ hooves sparking the cobbles. Inside, there are clocks, carriage clocks, grandfather and the plain faced one in the kitchen… the numbers large and simple- a clock face for a child to learn by.  Too many clocks measuring night hours and Alfred coughs and hacks half sleeping half waking. …spasms of harsh bitter coughing until it leaves him breathless and spent. And he will still be up and shaving at 6, ready to begin again. Same old shabby suit, frayed turn-ups, the silk of his waistcoat lining sweat-stained yellow and ink seeping from a carelessly capped fountain pen.

Time’s a strange thing. Are we able to make time?  I say it often enough. Am I in my time? Are we women close to coming into our time once and for all?  I’m not one for standing in the shadows, nothing ever happens there apart from dust collecting-then there’s all the effort of displacing it. Do I experience self-doubt? Of course I do, as does everyone excepting the most extreme zealot.  I’ll take ‘driven’ but would prefer ‘led’… energetically.

Scene 2 – Sankey hymn – ‘When the Roll is Called Up Yonder’

1909 – our home in Storks Road. We’ve recently taken in a couple of young lodgers, Addie and Nellie…both local Bermondsey girls. Mrs. Hoadley’s taken them under her wing – she’s teaching them basic cookery and housekeeping……the situation has not been without its teething problems! Both of them like to imbibe and neither of them can hold it!

Commotion of female voices in a voice over

‘Just look at the state of you two’s….sodden with the drink in a house that takes none-well Addie Springett and Nellie Lyons I hope you’re ashamed to the soles of yer boots…and don’t you forget its Ada and Dr Salter whose put them boots on yer feet.  They take you in, she’s learning you a trade….you’d both be back rag-pickin’ if it weren’t for her….why neither of you can stand up straight…and don’t you swear at me with yer beery breath…it’s nothing I haven’t heard elsewhere…oh, she isn’t going to be sick again is she Addie…oh get her in the yard and put her head under the pump. You’ll be good for nothin’ tomorrow either of you…Ada, don’t you get clearing up after this pair of ….well, I won’t say ….because you won’t like it …but I’ll get a bucket of carbolic ready when I’ve seen ‘em upstairs. And they should be clearing up their own spew. It’s not your place.

Ada:  Mrs. Hoadley – don’t worry it’s all under control. No harm done except to those poor girls. I expect they’re feeling pretty awful or they will be when the drink wears off.  And if they didn’t actually bring the drink in with them, that’s a step forward. My Bermondsey girls are all duchesses inside… they just don’t know it yet.  Rest assured many a grand duchess has tipped into rowdiness and the odd excess but they have servants and skivvies and soft beds and a little light broth at the end of a bell pull. It’s all accident of birth although it shouldn’t be……… those girls, they’re rag pickers, the lowliest and vilest of transaction-I wouldn’t call it a trade. Addie and Nellie have been at it since they were four years old, crawling over heaps of London detritus, scavenging for scraps of cloth. Imagine – diseased and infected medical dressings, bloodstained  laundry from sickbeds, childbirth, deathbeds even, discarded undergarments stiff and stinking… lice-ridden, vermin-infested – all of our suppurations and evacuations are there – not to mention the shards of metal and glass that cut their feet and hands, which in turn get infected – Alfred sees his share of these – and then the long walk to the paper mills or the rag merchant’s for a couple of coppers.

Of course, it would be marvellous and nothing short of a miracle if they’d all take the pledge. It has to become a way of life, eschewing alcohol.  I was born to it being raised in the Methodist tradition and Alfred, well, he embraced it early – he joined the Band of Hope as a small boy. I remind him often when he rages against the evils of drink, however close we try to walk in the footsteps of our Bermondsey poor, we’re never thankfully in their shoes.

I’ve heard so much vernacular since I came to live here that I’ve come to regard it as ‘quaint’. Alfred says he could write a Jamaica Road dictionary of body parts and ailments, so full of euphemism, aphorism and plain telling it as it is. A foul mouth is not the measure of any person. The conditions of life around here are enough to make a parson swear – I just hope his God hears it and commands ‘By all means vent Reverend. Now it’s into the gutters with you where Christ’s chosen are waiting’.

Mrs. Hoadley will want to know what she’s to cook tonight. I don’t know why she asks – my answer’s always the same. As long as I don’t have to go anywhere near the range or a mixing bowl, I’ll eat anything as will Alfred.  I have to say, I needed to tell Alfred quite early in our courtship that no man was ever going to marry me for my cooking skills and fair to say, Alfred took me at my word.  Neither of us are inclined towards fine dining and although we both appreciate plain food well cooked, Alfred especially would be hard-pressed to describe the last meal he had eaten, only an hour after putting down his knife and fork.

So, what to put in the  housekeeping book – ‘cook whatever takes your fancy, provided it is seasonal, nutritious and has a high satiety value’ – something with suet in it perhaps?’

Scene 3 – Music:  Ira Sankey hymn- ‘Work for the Night is coming’

(Ada puts on coat and hat and gloves)

The walk through Bermondsey streets to our Girls Club –one learns to love it… it’s a constant reminder of what needs to be done.  What can I say? If you don’t see it as privilege plain and simple you’re in the wrong place. Alfred was home earlier than usual tonight-his coughing is intense at the moment and not helped by the sooty atmosphere and the maniacal pace at which he pedals his bicycle everywhere.

High on the ‘to do’ list are these streets. This place is slum-ridden, rat-infested and packed with humankind-the very worst has to be Salisbury Street; four acres housing 1300 people. It’s been condemned already since the 1890s. See that house, the one with the sacking at the window for curtains, actually quite a few are like that – it’s the one with the small dog yapping on the step and the old lady smoking a clay pipe and letting the windowsill take her weight. See it? It’s a one up one down and a shred privy in the yard serving at least ten families. Mr. Morgan the man of the house works at the tannery, the leather factory and his wife and six daughters, indeed 9 people share that hovel, don’t leave out grandmother on the windowsill, and the women’s work? Some are in the factories but a couple are outworkers for the leather works-what they actually do is take their buckets round the streets of Bermondsey and Rotherhyde and they collect dog mess-quite an important component of the tanning process so I’m told. In 1909 the sledgehammers and demolition teams are still nowhere in sight. It will happen; We’ve said it will.  Our Independent Labour Party agrees that it must. The plan is to pull down three quarters of Bermondsey and build a garden city in its place. Bermondsey settle for its sour air? I don’t think so.

I do hope there are no broken windows at the club tonight. It’s such a fag getting the glazier out and making sure the splinters don’t go into bare feet. There are a considerable number of our girls who are without shoes. Unshod like penitents except they’re the ones who generally need no forgiveness as its society that’s wronged them.  Admittedly, it doesn’t always seem that way.  And I am speaking in the broadest sense.

Scene 4 (sounds of a cat fight and general teenage girl hubbub)

The scene that greets me in the social room is that of three young females scrabbling and scratching and tearing at each other in a state of white heat.  They’re cursing like dockers, ripping already raggedy dresses and fraying pinafores.  Now if other people can just move away so they don’t add to the problem that would be really helpful.  A look, a signal to two of our helpers and we move to separate the girls-restraint with kindness! As I hold the fourteen years of harsh and starved living that is Colleen, I can feel her sweat and her body heat and the throbbing pulses of anger within her bony frame… and I hold and we hold until we feel safe together.  The matter is not resolved -that needs to come later when blood has cooled.

Here at the Girls Club the atmosphere can change on the tone of someone’s voice, an ill-thought riposte or the sheer weight of confusion, anger and exhaustion the girls may bring with them. Sometimes it feels very hot indeed in these rooms. Hello Ellen, how’s your mother? Safely delivered as yet? Twins?! I shouldn’t be surprised, she did look large in front…. so that brings it to sixteen living in your house… of course seventeen, I’d forgotten your uncle. I must make time to call on Ellen’s mother, encourage her to keep giving those babies the breast in the hope it’ll at least delay her ‘catching’ again so rapidly as the women say. Twelve births in eleven years and the whole family of them only ever a skip and a jump from the workhouse…

Oh, there is work around here, stevedores on the docks and the factories for the women and girls, the jam factory Pinks, Peek Freans, bottling works, cocoa and chocolate but rest assured, there’s good reason to call them sweated trades.

Josephine, Dr Salter wants to know why your father hasn’t been to the surgery again with his leg injury. We don’t want it turning gangrenous do we? Say that again, it is quite noisy in here……you know Dr Salter won’t make a charge. Now to the three Valkerie… Colleen, Elsie, May-no, you don’t have to sit beside each other, one either side of me and one facing. Colleen, where are the buttons gone from your blouse? I accept there may not have been a full set when you came in but now there’s none.  All of you need search for them before we can make amends… and Elsie, those gauges on your face are going to require a drop of iodine. I note that May has her fists tightly clenched –as if guarding something highly prized.  She is looking at me expectantly. Am I going to demand she unlocks her palms to show me? No need. Colleen and Elsie are both rubbing sore patches on their scalps, and for once it isn’t ringworm, and I can see bits of auburn and brown poking out from between her fingers.  Little do they know how close they drive me to pulling out my own hair.  They begin to cry. It would be such a good idea if you spent some time in the sewing room tonight, learn a few tricks of the trade repair-wise. I’d teach you myself but I’ve other activities planned for the club. Sarah, will you go with them? What’s that down there? Found the first missing button, only four more to go… even though there’s clearly a dozen or more button holes.

Who’s for the gym tonight? Physical Education and fresh air – Alfred and I agree wholeheartedly on this.  Whatever life hold for them, we can at least lay down some sound foundations now. It is within our power.

Now, Josephine, your father and his ulcerated leg… the Dockers Union are giving him a small sum to help eke things out.  Can he make it to the surgery or does he need a home visit?  She needs assurance yet again that the doctor’s fee will be found one way or another.  Most times it’s ‘the other’. The reality is that of a loaf on the table, or money in the jar for the ‘emergency’ visit…and what’s the point of shillings waiting in a jar when hunger and wants already at home. Note to self, introduce the girls to manicure, nothing fancy, just nail trimming scissors and nail files-it could save so much distress in  facial injuries-not to mention iodine and cotton wool.

Scene 5 – Charabanc drawing up and engine throbbing sound effect

Oh good. The charabanc’s already arrived. Come along maidens all. Find a seat.  Colleen and Elsie is it such a good idea for you two to be sitting by each other? Given your bout of fisticuffs at the club? Oh, you’re the best of friends now. Good, good. …a fragile peace at the best of times. One of our club workers, May, speaks quietly in my ear. Yes, I have noticed a few bottles tucked in shawls and pockets.  Ladies, before we commence our trip to the seaside I must gently remind one and all that alcohol is verboten, forbidden, not allowed on this charabanc or on anybody’s person. And I will personally be deeply disappointed if we should find otherwise. They pull the bottles from the folds of their clothes and uncork the bottles. ‘Come and have a swig, Mrs Ada, nothing but liquorice water here’.  ‘Right, driver, off we go’.

The journey is bumpy, lively but without incident. Their language is surprisingly tame, possibly because I’ve brought along with us my small daughter Joyce, although she does attend the local school and has long since learnt to sort out the ‘bad’ words from the rest.  There’s much singing of songs we’ve learnt at the Club and a good many relief stops. May and the charabanc driver look testy and given to wondering if we’ll get there before it’s time to turn round and come home again. ‘Most of these girls will have left home without breakfast, the most they have in their stomachs is possibly a mug of weak tea. Of course it’s going straight to their bladders. And of course, it’s February and few of them are dressed for it.—girls, there’s a basket of extra gloves and scarves and shawls and so forth should you need them-it will be nippier at the coast than it is in Bermondsey’.

Suddenly there is a shriek and a gasp from a small girl called Carrie… ’What’s making all that out there green? It’s like a great carpet everywhere you look….’ Joyce looks at me, bewildered, ‘Doesn’t she know it’s just grass?’

(Sound effect/seagulls /sea)

Finally, we’re in Southend. The wind’s blowing and much is closed for the season but it’s still a place of wonderment for our maidens. Actually it’s a gem of a February day-blue skies and sharp- ‘Wrap up ladies and remember there’s nothing quite so health-giving as pure sea air. Breathe in as much of it as you can while you can. Everyone collect a picnic lunch before you go off and we leave for home at 4 o clock sharp. ‘

The journey home comprises renditions of ‘one man went to mow’ and ‘ten green bottles’ and then subdued murmurings as people snooze, including Joyce who falls asleep in my lap. I carry her home to Storks Road in the dark, her legs clamped around my waist, small arms around my neck. Beautiful.

Scene 6 – Music – Handel (Entry of the Queen of Sheba)

Wonder of wonders! Alfred humming Handel. Whatever next! The three of us, Alfred, Evelyn and I draw up our chairs round the dining room table and Alfred fetches Joyce’s little blackboard and easel .We’re buoyant as hot air balloons. Alfred can’t sit still in his and then he’s standing on his chair, ‘What a coup. What a victor. I give you  Ada Salter,  who has made history on this day in November 1909 – the very first woman Councillor in London.’

I can’t deny it was a feeling of total elation… we women in the Labour movement, we didn’t just feel we were moving mountains, that what you do with furniture to clean under it-we were assailing their heights and breathing in the oxygen of change.

‘Ada – you take charge of the chalk and let’s begin to write the future’. And we begin our wish-list for the people of Bermondsey. Our good friend Evelyn is equally buoyant and adds ‘Once our Socialist dream becomes a reality and we are the majority!’

‘How long will that be?’

‘Let’s estimate twelve years.’

‘Twelve years to build our new Jerusalem here…. why not? Alfred, please watch where you’re throwing all those nut shells. Someone’s got to pick them up’. He has to nibble and chomp his way through seemingly bottomless bowls of nuts and fruit once the conversation and the ideas start to flow. And there’s no decorum…..

I write ‘Bermondsey: Our vision for 1921-first up, -no more slums, five roomed homes for every family (although still not big enough for some but that’s another issue altogether), a bathroom in every house, gardens back and front… and window boxes, nursery schools for the under fives, garden playgrounds for the children…is this what drunkenness feels like? Our ideas spill like grain from a silo. We run out of blackboard space.

For my part, I would have the conversion of the unsightly graveyards into working gardens-life takes precedence over death every time…

Your turn, Alfred.

‘We’ll build public baths and people will swim there free of charge-never underestimate the heath-giving properties of a good swim’


‘The best quality washing machines for community use’

‘And for my part…….’

‘You’ve said that once,’

‘I’m saying it again, we’ll build your  marvellous new Heath Centre, Alfred,  with free diagnosis by specialists, and maternity centres and child welfare centres and every hungry child will be fed in their Bermondsey school and the red flag shall fly over the Town Hall…..’

‘The County Hall’ exclaims Evelyn

‘Big Ben!’ bellows you know who.

If ever there was a leading this was it. We’re here for a purpose and rather than being driven like cattle, we were being led as if by a child shepherd…..over stony ground, thorny and uncompromising  but there definitely was a path of sorts.

Scene 7 – Music – Sankey hymn – Yield Not Unto Temptation

No, I will not close the curtains. I want the light. And no, I will not come in from my garden, our garden where Joyce’s acorn is showing through-two leaves now. Today, June 1910, Alfred and I have done that thing every parent rich and poor knows to be the wrong ordering of things-we have attended the funeral of our own child, our only child, Joyce. Always at its most perfumed in the early evening, the slightest whisper of nicotinia, night stocks, verbena – She was ours for just eight years but she was sunshine, she brought light. She and I worked this earth, Joyce digging her holes and burying  ‘treasure’, learning which plant was which, even what thrived best and where….. I don’t wish to hear that we made the wrong choices, that we sacrificed our own child to our high ideals by allowing to her to mix with the local children, refused to take flight when epidemics struck. We could have whisked her away to a safe clean Quaker school, to a sanatorium in Switzerland… any number of options open to us but in fact we couldn’t. Our work here would be finished. And Joyce above all else was happy here, she was loved by everyone and every day of her short life.

Scarlet Fever isn’t necessarily fatal, Joyce had it twice before and we thought that would make her stronger….. people have been wonderful. Hundreds and hundreds of them and her school friends standing silently outside our door every day of her illness, waiting and willing…willing her to keep hold of life. We took to posting bulletins on the front door as it saved so much knocking.

A child’s death, our child’s death is a cruelly uncomplicated one-no wills, none of the official disentanglement that accompanies the deaths of adults. So there is nothing, absolutely nothing to block the pain. It bruises and sickens and stabs and stabs and there is no balm. How to make sense of this? Alfred and I can barely speak to one another. We’re changed people…. I can see it in his face and mine reflected back. How to come back from the abyss? So savage for a doctor to see his child die. Although he could not have done more, no-one could. 

Scene 8 – Music – Ira Sankey hymn – Marching to Zion

It’s August 1911 and I have to say this. A miracle of sorts is taking place in Bermondsey. And if some of it is the fruits of our unionising, it’s the women workers who’ve grasped the bull by the horns. They are taking massive strike action!

It’s rather busy here… the Fort Road Institute is vital to keeping the strike strong.  People are truly rallying to the cause because of course it’s empty bellies that will drive them back to work before victory has been achieved so soup kitchens and feeding stations are being organised at intervals along the river-my task- two of my strengths, organising and mobilising into action, and anyone can scrape a spud and peel a carrot for a communal soup pot, even me.

It’s happened. It’s really happening – literally thousands of our women,  one estimate puts it at 21,000, all on the lowest wages imaginable, have taken control of their own destinies and have downed tools. As yet no, they’re not all union members but they are striking as one. And I must emphasise, there is no formal strike plan, but a loose coming together of the masses as if they are walking out of a mist.

It’s exciting, it truly is. Miriam, one of the young women from our Girls’ Club, well, she was one of the first to walk out from the local chocolate factory and she was so forthright. She’s become quite the spokeswoman for the factory floor, she told the manager, ‘We’re striking for more pay, mister, and we won’t go in till we get it.’

And the manager at Peek Frean, they make biscuits you know, he’s beside himself. Over 2000 of his workers have joined the picket lines.  He protested loudly ‘I don’t know of a single business that is working in the district….it is what one might call a reign of terror’.

Of course , we women activists we’re all implicated in this, rightly so but it does so depend on the way you tell it….for instance the boss at the local jam factory, Pinks, well, we tried to engage with him in discussion, Marion Phillips and I, he was having none of it. He claims that before people like us incited his workers to it, they were all ‘well contented’ and that they had all been swayed by ‘the mob’. I’m not sure how I feel about being described as ‘the mob’. Can a small group of quite genteel but forceful women activists be described a s a mob? Meanwhile outside his office window the women employees were marching round and round the factory chanting ‘We are not White slaves-We are Pink’. We thought it rather clever. And they even had this huge banner emblazoned with the exact same slogan which they held up to his window, a touch of belt and braces as you might say.

What are the workers striking for? It’s almost a matter of what they’re striking against. The majority of women who’ve taken their grievances to the streets earn less than 6 shillings a week, and given that they may the sole breadwinner in their family as male unemployment is rife on this side of the river and for those under 16 years it’s as little as 3 shillings a week for 40 hours sweated labour. Small wonder when some of them turn to bad ways.  And what does the Morning Post have to say about this disgraceful exploitation of the poor, that these firms can only exist by employing low-paid labour. I ask you, what kind of civilised society finds that acceptable?

You see, a trade union is like a bundle of sticks with the workers tightly bound to one another in unity. A single worker who is not in a union is like a single stick, easily broke or bent by the will of her employer. And the bundle of sticks is growing –why we’ve distributed 4000 union cards in a few days.  And here’s a quote for you ‘When the trades union movement fully realises that all the workers, men and women, youth and maidens, are  members one of another, then they will hear more than the rumble of revolution in the distance, the revolution will be here…..’ What do you mean ‘Who said that?’  Why, I did.

Now I really must get on. Food parcels to pack…anything as long as it doesn’t involved blessed cooking! Families must not go hungry. Paradoxically, they may even be better fed.

Scene 6 – Sound effect – Glasgow Central Station – Announcement of next train to London Euston

We’ve always tried to make time for one another, Alfred and me-for years- 11.30 until 1pm we kept  free of commitments if at all possible so that we could talk, take stock. It seems to have gone by the by now that I’m in Manchester one day, Liverpool the next, Birmingham, Huddersfield, Salford, Bradford-oddly shaped beads on an ever growing string, taking the platform at one public event after another. I wonder, do  we spread ourselves too thinly?   It used to be late night conversations, pillow talk- now that’s’ gone. Alfred’s illness has put an end to that.

Even his knives, forks and spoons are separate to mine.  We’ve furnished his shed-a bed, the sheets of which he insistently changes himself-I can’t complain about that although our housekeeper does-a small bedside table, a chair, a spittoon and a chamber pot for the necessaries, oh and a spirit lamp-although Alfred does whatever reading he’s minded to by the parlour fire before bed. 

This new order we’re striving for, it’s a greedy child. Should I say ‘No’ on occasions? I certainly haven’t done this year.  Am I deliberately filling in the spaces, closing the gaps so there is no time to think? It may well seem so. At least at Peckham Quaker meeting I’m an Attender still, so Quaker offices can’t be offered to me.  That may change but in the meantime no Quaker committees!

Scene 7 – Train departing – sound effect

(phone rings) Sound effect – Telephone

Alfred, I’m back……. are you asleep or engaged with something? He may respond…on the other hand. …he frequently doesn’t.  It was a good journey, thankfully no delays-Glasgow to home is plenty long enough….I’m making cocoa, will you join me? I’m met with silence but I know that silence…… they’re part of his very fibre since Joyce was taken from… since she died. Guess what Alfred…. no, I’ll read you the minute – The Annual Conference of the Women’s Labour League held in Glasgow January 1914  – we hereby appoint Mrs Ada Salter President…… Alfred, we’ll talk in the morning, we’re both tired….. sleep well….

I’ll get it. If it’s for you, I’ll knock the door.

The Manchester Courier has reported on our conference? Kudos indeed.  What does it say? That the reporter was considerably impressed by the way in which we conducted ourselves…. glad to hear it.  Read that last little bit again… how wonderful that he thinks the men at the forthcoming Labour Party conference might be able to learn a thing or two. I recall that he did say to me in conversation that he hoped us women would ‘form models for the procedure of the superior sex….’ Superior sex? Well, I suppose some men are taller… Rather endearing don’t you think

Scene 8 – Public meeting – sound effect

I’m taking as my subject tonight that which is on the minds of every man, woman and child both here in Bermondsey and in Germany and Austria and France. War talk-men and women, though I have to say it mainly emanates from the lips of men – in 1914 they talk up war… talking it up to the surface as if summoning up demons from the depths of the earth And each of us here must decide what our response is to be.

The catastrophic interruption that is war. The contagion that is war. The abject waste that is war on every level.

I’ve recently been re-reading Bertha Von Suttner’s own personal protest against war, ‘Lay Down Your Arms’.  I give you a taste:

‘No more thunder of artillery, no more blare of trumpets, no more beat of drum, only the low moans of pain and the rattle of death. In the trampled ground some redly-glimmering pools, lakes of blood, all the crops destroyed, only here and there a piece of land left untouched, and still covered with stubble; the smiling villages of yesterday turned into ruins and rubbish. The trees burned and hacked in the forests the hedges torn with grape-shot. And on the battleground thousands and thousands of men dead and dying-dying without aid.

If this was 1870, the Franco-Prussian war, 40 years ago, are we to imagine that war has got less gruesome in the interim?  When even the clergy seem to have their heads on the wrong way maintaining that God still uses it as ‘a means of training His children’ .Where is the Jesus Christ they purport to represent in all of this?  Show me where he says ‘Thou shalt not kill except if he be German, Austrian or other such nationality as instructed’.

We still have hope. There are mighty demonstrations against war all over Europe and here in London Alfred and I are organising and will lead a Bermondsey march into the heart of the city. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder and we need to pack Trafalgar Square tomorrow, regardless of the weather.

Scene 9 – Sound effect – Ira Sankey hymn – Hold Thou My Hand

Strange that that was only days ago.  The slaughter has now begun.  We both feel the distress and the shock. I’ve now been accepted into full Quaker membership. They shattered every single pane of glass in the Fort Road Institute….  Canadian soldiers from nearby barracks….and a crowd of local people, faces we know-descended on our home and threatened to do likewise…. Alfred was incensed. We both opened the door to them… Alfred found his voice, he most forcefully reminded them how much they and their families need his medical skills… in effect he ordered them to disperse and they did just that…. they melted into the night.

In the light or should I say, darkness of this war, I have no choice….betrayed by the Methodists as we are. I was born to Methodism, have lived by it, it has been in part my family. I’ll have none of it-they may choose to trundle to hell in a handcart…I can only pray they’ll do an about turn before they get there.

Alfred’s being led to write down his beliefs, spiritually and morally wrestling with those who support war and he is calling it ‘Faith of a Pacifist’ –the rat tat tat and ping of the Underwood typing machine as the Truth emerges for publication. ..and less than 200 miles away across the Channel, there’s the rattle and boom of guns. It will be contentious and provoking, audacious to some-as if war is not….. I believe he speaks for all of us who believe in pacifism when he places himself in Christ’s footsteps and asks the big question: What would Christ do here in August 1914 or out in France?

 ‘Look! Christ in khaki, thrusting his bayonet into the body of a German workman. See! The Son of God with a machine gun!  No! No! That picture is an impossible one, and we all know it.’

Scene 10 – Sound effect of a Kent garden – birds singing (Ada is potting up small plants etc)

Three years on and we’re still in a state of madness. Or is this the new normality? One does see many more women in occupations but no one in their right mind would have wished for it to happen this way. Here in Kent, we’re so much closer. I can stand on the terrace and hear the rumble of the big guns-…. it’s our wedding anniversary but Alfred’s stayed in London.

I think back to when we first met. We clashed-chalk and cheese. In those days he was so very noisy, boisterous, puppyish even….. and ambitious. Was it to be a high flying career in Bacteriology or Bermondsey Settlement?  A house in Kent- that was a shared idyll…nature, freedom, room to breathe. … but…. well , they do say that nothing amuses God more than us human beings making a plan

We have part of the dream, thanks to some very generous Quaker friends. Fairby Grange. It would have been far too big for just us anyway. It’s more than a house-it’s an estate. So grand! Still, I can work on the gardens here. I can get things to grow that don’t have a chance in our Stork Street garden…. plants need to be hardy to survive the Bermondsey air.  It’s good for the men here also. Being out in the grounds or digging the soil if they’re able, it’s part of the healing. We’ve over twenty recovering Conscientious Objectors here at the moment. They require intensive nursing such is the damage to minds and bodies. Weakened limbs, emaciation and so many shattered hands. This seems to be quite a favoured form of torture, that of destroying men’s hands because they will not hold a gun. Broken knuckles, flayed skin that won’t grow back as it should but tissue paper-thin, wrists and digits twisted and snapped and then left to mend untreated. So many hands that will never function normally again, hold a hot mug of tea, do up a coat button, manage a knife and fork……..

It’s nothing but the most brutality and butchery every single day both here and in France-we raise our voices and some are being heard. People are becoming less and less certain as to what this war is meant to achieve…we know what it’ll achieve, setting the ground ready for the next conflict and the one after that.

Scene 11 – Sound effect – Ring of a door bell

Could you get that please, Gretchen? 

Ah, Good afternoon Reverend Allday

How exasperating ….I do find him to be quite a misguided man …alas he’s not alone in that. Doubtless curious as to how our women’s delegation faired in Versailles.

Yes, we returned a few weeks ago. We may not have achieved a good deal but we did what we could…….given the circumstances. I was able to address the conference….and we  lobbied  whichever individual state representatives we could…it never was going to be simple…..tea or coffee, Reverend….I’d recommend the coffee……Gretchen, wenn Sie einen Moment haben, kaffe und kuchen bitte

He flinches visibly. ‘And the Germans, Mrs. Salter, did you speak to them?’

I think I can see where this may be leading

Ada, plain Ada, Reverend Allday. As you are well aware, The German delegation was not allowed into the talks, a foolish and vindictive error…in my opinion yes.  He takes off his spectacles and carefully polishes the glass as he speaks,

‘But it’s clear as the noses on our faces that the Germans must bear the burden of guilt for the war and as the vanquished, they must make reparation, full reparation, whatever that takes and however long it takes. Surely that is justice and our fallen deserve justice’

At that precise moment, almost as if by Divine Intervention, Gretchen enters with a pot of coffee the way that only Austrians can make it, followed by beautiful three year old Christina who offers the vicar a slice of cake they’ve prepared.

‘Battenburg, Reverend? I’m afraid it’s all the cake we have but it is superb-one of Magda’s specialities’. I have expect him to refuse but Satan apparently gets the better of him. He tells me he calls it ‘Shackleton cake’

‘How interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard that. Why Shackleton cake? Oh, I see. Ernest Shackleton took  it with him on his Polar Expeditions….hmmm…now to return to our discussion, let’s consider what happened last year on the 11th of the 11th . Indeed we had an Armistice. And what exactly is an Armistice, Reverend Allday? Don’t worry about the crumbs, they’ll brush up. It’s a truce isn’t it? An Armistice is a truce, implying agreement on both sides, shared responsibility. Strange how the ground has shifted so quickly, don’t you think?’

‘Someone has to pay. That’s the reality’. Now he’s fumbling for a handkerchief.

‘We should all bear the burden-otherwise, what hope is there for a lasting peace? None. More coffee?’

There’s a tensing in the atmosphere as I sense he’s getting to the nub of the matter…he steeples his fingers and tells me how much he admires the spirit in which we’ve have taken these foreigners into our home…especially until only a year ago they were our enemy…

‘They’ve never been my enemy and I would say we’ve been led by the Spirit to do just this thing, Reverend. All I’m doing is opening my home to Austrian women and their children who may otherwise starve in their homeland because of our vengeful actions. Do we honestly think it’s a Godly action to keep our blockade of Germany going even now, months after the Armistice? To literally bring every Austrian and German citizen to their knees?’

He blusters ‘They must be kept weak, Mrs Salter’.

‘They’re already weak, Reverend Allday. Did you take note of Gretchen? She’s thin almost to the point of translucency and we’ve been feeding her up for a month…. and there are millions like her. Could it not be the case that we’re emboldened to do what Christ would have us do? ‘

He checks his pocket watch, the final gambit and I see him to the door

Goodbye, Reverend Allday and thank you again for calling. You’re welcome any time here at Storks Road and although we may think differently on these matters, we do share the same God.  Have you walked or cycled from Camden?  Oh, the motor car. Is that yours? It’s very smart. It must have taken a good deal of your stipend.  Alfred won’t countenance one; he feels very much that it would set us apart from the people we live amongst. And I must say, I have to agree.  Take care, Reverend Allday.

Scene 12 – Sound effect – Ira Sankey hymn – Safe in the Arms of Jesus. Changing costume into 1922 out fit and inspecting mayoral robes (on tailor’s dummy)

They’ve sent over the mayoral robes and the chain of office even though I’ve expressly stated that I will not wear them ever on any occasion as mayor of Bermondsey. I dislike jewellery and I don’t like dressing up.  It’s a humbling experience, one where I have to serve and represent those who chose me.  This is pure pomposity, it would just alienate me…..and as the very first woman mayor I think I stand out well enough.

Not much makes Alfred laugh outright nowadays but the way I seem to have set the cat amongst the pigeons at the Town Hall….. it can get him going.  Once I knew I was officially to take up office I laid out my conditions and they are non-negotiable.  There will be no more prayers before council meetings, instead we’ll all meet in the mayor’s parlour for 10 minutes Quaker silence, no money is to be wasted on events such as, for example, Royal jubilees and Royal birthdays-the money saved from such occasions can be used for the poor and needy…. as I’ll make clear in my inaugural speech this afternoon-The Bermondsey Revolution begins in earnest, now in 1922.

We had a blackboard vision back in 1909, Alfred, Evelyn and I and we gave ourselves 12 years. It’s going to take longer but then the vision grows ever larger.  I want trees. Everywhere one walks in Bermondsey there will be trees and think how they will improve the air quality, the benefits to health….I’ve already thought how I’ll get the Gas Board to work with us on this one. Trees are marvellous indicators of what’s happening below ground as well as above. So, if the Gas Board help us plant trees, all they need do is check the leaves for signs of gas leaks underground. It will show.

And green parks. Proper playgrounds for children. Everyone needs green space, especially in a city and especially in somewhere as industrial and sooty as this.  Flower beds, lots and lots of municipal flowerbed. This is not waste, it’s essential-not only does it feed the senses but it actually makes people feel as they’re of value, that they’re worthy of something more than drab.

New houses will be built, homes that are fit for purpose….not some architect’s notion of what a woman needs. And to do that we’ll consult the women who’ll live and work in these homes. 

We’ll build those swimming pools – and a solarium for the treatment of TB and we’ll go on steadily with the good work until there is no place in this borough with which we can reproach ourselves…..

(holds up a Union Jack and turns it round)

And the red flag of freedom, equality, peace and justice will fly over Bermondsey Town Hall.

(Holds red flag with Bermondsey emblem on it)

Music – Bringing in the Sheaves – exit

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