Postman’s Park 2:- Watt’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Postman’s Park exists, even if you know the area of St Paul’s in the City of London. It’s so SMALL. And out of the way – if you come to it via St Martin Le Grand, the entrance is marked by a big tree and an old blue Police Box. It’s opposite The Lord Raglan pub, which is used as the beginning point for this brilliant ghost tour. St Paul’s Cathedral is right up the road. The Museum of London is right up the road in the other direction, and the London Wall. There are much grander and more eye-catching things on all sides. Why on earth would you know about this tiny green space that looks like nothing at all from the street, or that at best looks like a cut through?*
Still, that’s okay, because now that you’ve read Monday’s post by Tina and are acquainted with the park and it’s rich three-churchyard history, you know it exists and now that I’m about to tell you what a wonderful, darling looking little green space this is, with potential for strolling, photographing, wildlife spotting and marvelling at the beautiful memorial that lies at it’s centre, you’ll be wanting to get down there as fast as possible. I hope. You should. It’s so nice. Even if you only go for five minutes in your lunch hour.
I was introduced to Postman’s Park, so named for the postal service workers that used to enjoy visiting it from the nearby GPO building, by a friend who had long since left London and still called it his home. The park was one of his favourite places. He used to work in the City and had discovered it long before Closer (2004) made it famous (although I think he fell in love with it all over again via the popular Natalie Portman film) and he wanted to show it to me.
It took a while to find. It’s that sort of place if you can’t quite remember and you don’t have access to Google Maps (which we didn’t back then – hard as it is to fathom, this was an age before every phone had 3G). When we did locate it he showed me the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice (1900) and I fell in love. What an unusual looking monument! A long, high wall set into the side of a building, covered with plaques, all made from beautiful ceramic and decorated in a deep burnt orange and a delicate blue, with the names, ages, occupations and mechanism of death of each person remembered there in bold type in the centre of each tile. We spent ages reading each ornate tablet. Sad tale after sad tale of otherwise unsung heroes, often emergency service workers, and much too frequently – children, who had laid down their life for a brother, sister, friend or complete stranger. Who had saved a life by giving their own. All remembered here, in the centre of the City of London, hidden away in this tiny park.
Something you’ll notice about the Memorial, if you know what to look for, is that the majority of people remembered there are from the working classes in parts of London that, at the turn of the last century, were not affluent. You can see this from their occupations – clerks, car men and labourers, and from the places they were from – Woolwich, Croydon, East Ham.
It was the intention of George Frederic Watts, the creator of the wall, to build a memorial that remembered everyday people, who might otherwise have been forgotten. These were not people who had a family mausoleum waiting for them at Highgate Cemetery, or even Nunhead. Watts was an artist, and he wanted to use his art as a force for social change. The idea of a sculpture to commemorate the bravery of ordinary people had been long on his mind – he had proposed such a thing several times, including in a letter to The Times ahead of Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee in 1887. He had never been able to gather the interest or the funding, until 1898, when St Botolph’s Aldersgate purchased the land that had previously been owned by the City Parochial Foundation (see Tina’s post for more information on this) and Watt’s was approached regarding the memorial, in the form of a covered wall, that he was now hoping to build. He recruited William De Morgan, who at the time was one of Britain’s leading tile designers, and the wall they came up with, the beginnings of what you see today when you go to visit Postman’s Park, was unveiled in 1900, although sadly Watts was too ill to go to it. 120 tablets were planned to be in place in time for the opening – only 4 were. 9 more were added during Watts’s lifetime. His second wife, Mary, took over the management of the memorial, although at some point before her death, she sadly lost interest. Today you can see rows and rows of blank spaces – room for more unsung heroes that were never commemorated. In 2009, the Diocese of London added a new tablet to the memorial – it was the first for 78 years. Since then, nothing new has been added. But all has been preserved.
Today I trod the now-familiar path from St Paul’s tube station to the park just after lunch and sat for a while on the long bench that runs directly under the memorial wall. Sitting here is almost like being part of an exhibit – you can face the park and watch the faces of the people that come along and work their way along the wall, reading each plaque. I was curious to see what sort of demographic the memorial would attract. I sat there for around 20 minutes, almost motionless, melting into the ceramics behind me and people-watching. I saw tourists, passers by, lunchtime strollers who were obviously very familiar with the park and barely looked up from their conversations or cigarettes, a gaggle of old ladies who stood and discussed the sad fates of each Hero on the wall and one family who particularly struck me – a father, mother and two sons. The father marched his elder son, a boy of about 12, to a plaque that paid tribute to a boy who had died saving his younger brother from drowning. He tapped the spot with his golf umbrella (oh how I wish Sheldon had been there to see it) and reminded his son of the importance of taking care of his younger sibling. A little drastic! But an important lesson I suppose.
Sheldon had pointed me in the direction of an actual, dedicated Postman’s Park app (past meets future!) that I could use on my visit. I whipped out my iPhone and, feeling a bit silly, gave it a go. The app allows you to point your camera at any of the plaques on the wall and it will be recognised and information about that person and the circumstances of their death will be discussed in more detail than what’s on the inscription itself. The plaque-recognition was a little iffy, or maybe I’m just not very tech-savvy, but the level of information given about each person and event was impressive. There was even a miniature family tree for each person.
If you’re not actually at Postman’s Park, you can still read about each person the Memorial features by selecting them from a drop down menu. Something interesting and a little different for you to try if you have a smartphone and a spare few minutes in the park. The app is available for free on IOS and Android phones and is made by Prossimo Ventures Ltd in collaboration with the University of Roehampton. It’s informative and not frivolous, which makes it immediately better than Flappy Bird.
I never watched the film Closer, it never really appealed to me. Postman’s Park has a different draw. Maybe it’s all the rich history of the three churchyards and the great piece of art that is the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice sitting in the middle of it all. A wonderful set-piece of sculpture that you can go and view at any time during the day, completely for free. Maybe it’s the majesty of the thing, or the humbling feeling that comes from standing so close to the memory of so many good, selfless people. You wonder if, put in their positions, you could have done the same heroic thing. Maybe it’s just that, once through the gate and into the park, the sounds of the city sound a little dimmer. But there’s something about it and I can’t help but love it.
*Never be fooled by anything that looks like a cut-through in the City of London. The Square Mile holds more history than you can shake Sheldon’s umbrella at, and most of it is hidden up alleyways.
All photography by Christina Owen 2014.