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!