The heroes of Postman's Park
Taking the opportunity afforded by the Spring sunshine yesterday, I enjoyed a stroll from Spitalfields through the City of London to visit Postman’s Park, a tiny enclave of green between St Bartholomew’s Hospital, the Barbican and St Paul’s Cathedral. Created in 1880 as a place of recreation for postmen, it is across the road from where the statue of Sir Rowland Hill, inventor of the postage stamp, stands outside the former sorting office. Of itself this is a quaint notion but it is not what attracts me to this melancholic shady corner, full of ferns, evergreen shrubs and dark fishponds. I have been a regular visitor here ever since I first discovered it years ago when I had an office in Clerkenwell where I used to go and write. Whenever I did not know what to write, I went out for walk. So, as you can imagine, I went for a lot of walks and this was how my curiosity for the City arose.
In 1900, the Victorian artist George Frederick Watts created a Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice here, a wall of ceramic plaques with a lean-to shelter, commemorating those who lost their lives trying to save others. Undoubtably, it is a noble enterprise but I am not sure that my fascination with this strange Memorial is entirely noble. The Memorial is a catalogue of calamity, in which people meet their deaths in a variety of dramatic ways that induce awe and wonder. As you scan the plaques, taking in the fires, drownings, poisonings and other accidents, each appears more extraordinary than the one before, encouraging a certain morbid instinct that is innate to human nature. Before long, you are connoisseur of calamity and you have shuffled the plaques into a hierarchy of strangeness.
To my eyes,“Sarah Smith, the Pantomime Artiste at Prince’s Theatre, who died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion, January 24 1863,” will always be in the limelight in death, just as she was in life, because of the theatrical nature of her demise which evokes those famous images of Loie Fuller, only with flames replacing the billowing dress. This Memorial, commemorating events that are reminiscent simultaneously of both the Final Destination movies and Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, appeals to me because every plaque is an elliptical drama which allows my imagination scope to conjure the images and imagine the whole story for myself. Edward Gorey might have illustrated a handsome book picturing these memorable disasters.
Watts believed that his heroes provided models of exemplary behaviour and character but I think that this amassing of examples proposes a certain ambiguity. Inevitably, you ask yourself whether this is a Memorial to courage or to foolhardiness. You might even go further and suggest that these dramas illustrate the porous line between courage and stupidity, which by its nature is a fine distinction. I have brought people here to this Memorial who have been overcome with laughter at the outrageousness of it. The surfeit of tragedy tips over to become high comedy, like too many tabloid disaster headlines side by side.
Death spares no dignity, and a sewage works is an unfortunate place to drown just as an explosion in a sugar factory has undeniable bathos. Looking at the dates, which are primarily from the second half of the nineteenth century, you wonder if this was an especially dangerous time to live. Though, if you dwell on the Memorial further you cannot but conclude that life itself is dangerous, human existence is frail, and we live in a world where arbitrary accidents happen continously. All of which is quite normal and self-evident, as the news reminds us daily.
If the facts are sparse, as they are here, they can take on an unintentional significance when, for example, people are reduced to their professions. Police Constable George Funnell was a hero because he went back to rescue a barmaid after saving two others from a fire in Hackney Wick, which prompts the question - Was he a hero specifically because he saved the barmaid? Further questions arise with John Cranmer, a clerk for the London County Council, who rescued a stranger and a foreigner at Ostend. Is this stranger and foreigner, one or two individuals? And was it more or less heroic, to rescue a person (or persons) who was (or were), by implication, merely a stranger and a foreigner?
I do not wish to diminish the seriousness of these real tragedies that are only rendered bizarre by our distance in time and the unique context of their collective presentation. The many tragic deaths of children and young people recorded here speak poignantly across the years, Elizabeth Boxall of Bethnal Green, aged seventeen, who died trying to save a child from a runaway horse, William Donald the nineteen-year-old railway clerk who drowned in the River Lea saving a lad from “a dangerous entanglement of weed” and eleven year old Solomon Galaman who died of injuries after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial St, “Mother I saved him but I could not save myself.”
My grandmother had a print of George Frederick Watts’ painting “Hope” in her dining room and it fascinated me as a child. Here was a woman, representing hope, blindfolded and swathed in a muslin dress, carrying a lyre with just one string, while sitting on a rock in the lonely ocean as the tide rose around her. It was an absurdly aestheticised image that spoke of hopelessness as much as hope. George Frederick Watts chose a certain moment in the narrative to present as “poetic”. If the sequence were animated, then the water would rise and the woman would struggle and die while fighting for her last breath. But the reality of drowning would not be a desirable image that my grandmother could put on her dining room wall to glance at each Sunday before she carved her joint of beef.
The same disconnect exists in this Memorial in Postman’s Park. There is an uneasy disparity between the notion of tasteful remembrance of individuals, who demonstrated lofty ideals of courage and self-sacrifice, and the absurd catalogue of real accidents. However, this disparity does not make these people any less heroic, it just reminds us of the untidy and undignified nature of death, over which we have little control, but which permits certain people to reveal brave spirits and sometimes get remembered for it too.
Be assured, I took extra care in crossing the busy streets as I walked back on my return journey through the City to Spitalfields.