A Victorian memorial to real-life heroes.
Postman’s Park in the City of London
The word ‘hero’ can often be overused, for example as an alternative for describing someone you love or a favourite celebrity. When we come to think of true heroes, this summer we have may used the word (quite rightly) to describe the Olympians and Paralympians who performed feats we could never have dreamed possible. Then of course, there are the staff of the emergency services and Armed Forces, who put their lives on the line for others on a daily basis.
Sadly, not every hero gets the chance to revel in their glory as many have lost their life in the act of trying to save someone. While newspapers can pay tribute for only one day, one Victorian gentleman made sure the heroes in his lifetime were given a lasting, public memorial.
In memoriam: The loggia containing George Frederic Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice
The story behind the monument
Those who work in the City of London may well have passed by Postman’s Park, a quaint park sandwiched in between the modern concrete buildings that stand on King Edward Street and St Martin Le Grand. Although relatively small, it’s actually one of the largest parks in the City of London. Situated just north of St Paul’s tube station, the head office of the General Post Office (GPO) used to stand nearby, hence the name Postman’s Park.
Detail: Doulton Lambeth written subtly in the corner of one tile
The park is essentially the former burial ground for the Grade I-listed St Botolph’s Aldersgate Church (which still stands in the park grounds) and the former Christ Church Greyfriars (which was largely destroyed by bombs in World War II) nearby, with old grave stones lined up against the modern buildings bordering the park. In the North corner of the park stands George Frederic Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice – the main reason I come to the park. As I have never worked in the City, I hadn’t heard of the park until I read the Audrey Niffenegger novel Her Fearful Symmetry last year, which featured some of the characters visit Postman’s Park. I thought it sounded intriguing and was pleased to read it was real when I Googled it. The park also appears in opening sequence of the 2004 film Closer, with Natalie Portman’s character Jane adopting the pseudonym Alice after reading one of the plaques dedicated to one Alice Ayres, who died saving children from a house fire in 1885.
The main draw is a Victorian memorial to people who have died in heroic circumstances. Under a wooden loggia stand rows of ceramic tiles depicting names, dates and details of the tragedies. Victorian painter George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) proposed the idea in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria‘s Golden Jubilee, but it wasn’t unveiled until 1900. Although it had place for up to 120 plaques, only four were in place at the opening. When Watts died in 1904, his widow Mary (1849-1938) pledged to continue what her husband started and added more tiles.
William De Morgan’s tiles (top row) were handpainted and included green and flaming torch details, while the later Royal Doulton tiles (bottom row) included purple flowers and were significantly different, to the disdain of Mary Watts
Sad: Compositor Ernest Benning drowned near Pimlico Pier in 1883
Visitors to the Memorial will notice a big difference between the two styles of tile. The earlier style was designed by Watts’ associate William De Morgan and included handwritten tributes and flaming torches, while the latter was by manufacturer Royal Doulton and included purple flowers. Although Mary hoped to fill in all 120 spaces, she eventually had to withdraw from the project in 1910 due to other interests.
Over the years, the memorial wasn’t expanded, despite the empty spaces. Today, the memorial mostly reads tragic stories of children and adults who died in circumstances that may well have been common in Victorian Britain. The only modern addition is a tile dedicated to Leigh Pitt, a print technician from Surrey, who died saving a young boy from the canal in Thamesmead, south-east London, in 2007.
- Postman’s Park has entrances on King Edward Street or St-Martin’s-Le-Grand in the City of London, EC1. Nearest station: St Paul’s.
A Croydon hero: Police constable Robert Wright died in 1893 saving a woman from a house fire
The only modern addition: A monument to Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.