Bermondsey’s Dr Salter Sculpture
Along Bermondsey Wall East, overlooking the Thames in SE16 is a collection of 4 happy statues known as Dr Salter’s Daydream.
But the history of these figures are slightly more poignant than most…
WHO WAS DR SALTER?
Born in Greenwich in 1873, Alfred Salter won a scholarship to study medicine at Guy’s Hospital at the young age of 16. Salter can truly be described as a public servant, dedicating his entire life to tackling the poverty of 19th Century Bermondsey, for which he made a huge personal sacrifice.
In a letter to his beloved wife, Ada (herself a tireless campaigner against poverty and would become the first female London Mayor of Bermondsey in 1922) we can see the frustration, then resolve of the Salter’s;
Oh, the cruel wickedness of our society today! To thrust down these people by means of low wages and chronic unemployment into hopeless despair, and then leave them in that condition with no organised or conscious effort to rehabilitate them. What can we do?”
“You and I feel we have the same mission in life… 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.”
So instead of moving into a safer, wealthier neighbourhood the Salters moved into the heart of Bermondsey, Jamaica Road and set up a surgery for the local poor. Alfred incurred the wrath of his medical peers for charging as little as sixpence for a consultation and giving them free to those who couldn’t afford it.
In 1902 the couple had a daughter, Joyce, and the new parents made the decision to educate her locally, showing yet more commitment to Bermondsey. Aged only 8 Joyce tragically contracted Scarlet Fever, common in poverty stricken areas, and died soon after.
Two people who had given everything to improve the lives of those around them had lost their only child.
They never overcame their grief but continued to dedicate themselves to their neighbourhood.
When Ada died in 1942, Alfred wrote to a friend that “the loneliness is almost unbearable, but I have to learn to bear it.”
He died only a few years later at Guy’s Hospital in 1945.
In 1991, to celebrate the history of this remarkable family Diane Gorvin created ‘Dr Salter’s Daydream’ on the face of it a happy scene of a man watching his daughter play with her pet cat from afar. But knowing the story adds a poignant sadness to the work.
But the story doesn’t end there…
The Crime Scene
In November 2011 the statue of Dr Salter was stolen, presumably by metal thieves, during a spate of crimes where train tracks and even war memorials were sold for scrap.
Fearing the safety of the remaining statues of Joyce and her cat were kept in storage by Southwark Council.
The Return of Dr Salter
In 2014 after Salter Statues Campaign Group had raised £60,000 – which Southwark Council matched – the statues by the original artist Diane Gorvin were returned.
In addition to Dr Salter, Joyce and her pet cat Gorvin also put Ada in the picture, creating the first public sculpture of a female politician in London.
Watch my YouTube video about this and two other interesting sculptural finds along the Thames Path!
Very interesting, just finished reading Jam and Rosies by Mary Gibson, Dr Salter was a character who featured in the book. Sometimes the stories are so good and you feel they must be true to life, so I like to look things up once I’ve finished them. The terrible tube station disaster during the war I learnt about from another “saga book” I read. My history lessons never sunk in, ha ha
Hi Margaret, sorry for the delay in replying to this. That’s interesting, I hadn’t heard of that book. You wonder why anyone needs fiction when London is so full of strange truths! I’m the same, I remember nothing from history at school and yet have such a love for it now!
Great work Katie, I lived in Bermondsey area for a number of years and whilst drinking my pint at the nearby pub, would look over and see Dr Salter waving to his daughter. Such a tragic story. Love the statues.
Thanks Mark, even though they’re tragic they still make me happy to see them (also the Angel is such a great little pub!)
My Mother Father and Grandparent Lived in Jamaica Road in the 30s and Dr Salter was their doctor many time my father would talk about him and to me he was just another doctor in their lives But today 90 years on I have learned a small bit of history about this man and now remember what my father said.
How interesting! What a lovely realisation to come to! Thanks for sharing that Peter 🙂
I really love this story, I posted in Spanish in my instagram elbauldelacuriosidad. I live nearby and every time I walk through I will remember it. Thank you.