Just by way of a change, today’s tale is not about war, social upheaval, or the incredible changes which characterised the twentieth century. Because today I took delivery of a book about a little-known corner of London’s social history – Postman’s Park, in the City of London; and more particularly, a remarkable memorial which rests there.
The park itself, established in 1880, was once the churchyard and burial grounds of the Church of St Botolph, Aldersgate. The park is closeted by Little Britain, a street once dominated by booksellers, and later by goldsmiths and clothiers; by St Martin le Grand, which between 1829 and 1912 held the headquarters of the General Post Office, and Britain’s first purpose-built post office; and by Aldersgate Street, at one time part of the old A1 road to Edinburgh. When it was created in 1880, Postman’s Park soon became a popular resting place for the workers of the GPO and it’s sorting office, hence its name. It’s one of those quiet little spots in London where people can escape the daily burden of their work for a little while, and take time to draw breath, read a book, or just enjoy a sandwich.
But it was in 1900 when Postman’s Park gained an unusual addition, and one which was to mark it out from the various other peaceful spots in the City. And that was because of a man called George Frederic Watts. Watts was a very well-known and well-respected painter and sculptor in the nineteenth century, who in 1864, at the age of 46, married the then 16-year-old Ellen Terry, already on her way to becoming one of the most famous actresses of the Victorian era.
The marriage lasted for 10 months…
However Watts wasn’t a man to let such a failure stop him in his tracks, (nor to give up on younger women – in 1886, at the age of 69, he married his second wife Mary, then 36); and in 1887, his fame as an artist by then assured, he suggested – as a way to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee – a memorial to people who had lost their lives in the act of saving others, and who might otherwise be forgotten. To begin with, no-one wanted to know, but in 1889 the Vicar of St Botolph’s suggested it could be built in Postman’s Park.
Initially consisting of just a ‘loggia’ or open fronted gallery, at first it only held four ceramic tiles, although there was space for 120. After Watts died in 1904, his wife Mary took over the project, and by 1906 the designer and ceramics maker William de Morgan had contributed a further eighteen tiles when he gave up the ceramics business to become a maker of teeth for gingerbread men. (Actually, that’s a complete fabrication on my part; he became a novelist. But my version’s better.) Royal Doulton continued to meet Mary’s requirements for further tiles until she too lost interest in the project, and by 1931 the memorial consisted of 53 of the planned 120 tiles. A further, final tile was installed 78 years later in 2009.
It’s an unusual and remarkable memorial in a quiet oasis in one of the busiest cities in the world, and Watts deserves great credit for its inception. I first became aware of it a couple of years ago, when I read about it in another blog about London’s byways; but it came back to light recently when it was featured in Alan Cumming’s series “Urban Secrets”.
This website gives some more information on the tiles.
I knew from previous efforts that the internet held scant details on most of the names behind the tiles, but I knew that there had to be a plethora of interesting stories of heroic acts and human tragedy behind those names, so with my usual curiosity, I tracked down a website dedicated to the Park at Postman’s Park, and it was through this that I encountered this book by John Price dedicated to the full stories of the heroism which inspired Watts’ memorial.
So yesterday I ordered it, and today it came in to a smooth landing on my doormat. I’ve yet to read it, of course, but after a cursory flick through it looks like a thorough, well-researched, and at almost 300 pages has lots on the actual stories of those many selfless acts where ordinary men and women died trying, and often succeeding, to save the life of another.
I’m glad that I found this book, which is available on Amazon for £16.99, or £6.64 for Kindle. And I’m glad that George Frederic Watts had the humility and vision to create such an unusual and inspiring memorial. The longevity and survival of the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice is testament to its value as a commemoration of the sacrifices of everyday people rather than of warriors, explorers or politicians.
(This Post was originally published in September 2018)
Here are some images of the tiles the park and the memorial.: