The Infinite City: Utopian Dreams on the Streets of London by Niall Kishtainy - review by Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson

Eden by Thames

The Infinite City: Utopian Dreams on the Streets of London


William Collins 272pp £25 order from our bookshop

A bronze statue of a woman resting on a spade stares out across the Thames from the riverbank at Bermondsey towards the restless skyline of corporate London. ‘She looks determined and implacable,’ writes Niall Kishtainy. ‘Holding her spade, she is ready to build, not content with daydreams alone.’

The woman depicted is Ada Salter, the most remarkable of the utopian dreamers that populate Kishtainy’s The Infinite City. She came to London from her native Northamptonshire in 1896 to work in the slums with the Sisters of the People, a group of Methodist women. She married Alfred Salter, a radical socialist doctor, four years later. The couple lived and worked amid the slums, warehouses and factories of Bermondsey, their home open to all who needed their help. Their only child, Joyce (also commemorated in bronze on the side of the Thames), died at the age of eight from scarlet fever, almost certainly as a result of living close to the slums. In 1909, Ada was elected the first female borough councillor in London and in 1922 became Labour mayor of Bermondsey. Early in her political career, she fulminated against modern Babylon: ‘The injustices of the ages, the misery of the oppressed class, the sorrows of the poor, the tyranny of wealth and rank are going to be swept away for ever.’ If the shimmering skyscrapers she gazes at today from her riverside vantage point are anything to go by, it is clear that hasn’t happened yet. But Ada did change London, and she did it in a particular way.

‘Fresh Air and Fun’: that was the motto of what came to be known as the ‘Bermondsey Revolution’. Under the auspices of those other urban utopians Ebenezer Howard (in Letchworth) and Henrietta Barnett (in Hampstead Garden Suburb), garden cities had been seeded beyond the city or at its

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