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The heroes of Postman's Park

March 18, 2010
by the gentle author

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.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. John permalink
    March 18, 2010

    It would be hard to tell you fully how much I enjoy your daily musings. As a shipping man I spent around thirty years working in the east of the City, latterly in the revivified Clerkenwell, and as I now live in Dubai your vivid articles are eagerly devoured by me when I reach my computer.

    Postman’s Park is a self-made tribute to the peculiar morbidity and mawkishness of Victorians, but it is immensely enjoyable!

    Is La Rochetta restaurant still open on Clerkenwell Green? It is/was more an informal club than a public restaurant, where a lunch could finish at 1 a.m. the next day, and they would usually turn away casual callers even if the place was almost empty. Max and Al in the front of the house and Mum cooking in the back. I was lucky enough to spend many many happy hours there over the course of a good few years. Do try to do an article on them.

  2. March 18, 2010

    What a facinsting memorial. I would like to know where the tiles were made and by whom. The lettering is very attractive. Have you been to see Watt’s memorial in Compton in Surrey?

  3. Candice permalink
    March 18, 2010

    How very moving this is – thanks for posting it.

    Candice

  4. Anisoptera permalink
    March 18, 2010

    I am a new reader to Spitalfields Life and I have enjoyed your descriptions, musings and wanderings.

    I would like to point out your misuse of the phrase “begs the question” . That phrase refers to a logical fallacy rather than to prompting more questions. See: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-beg1.htm

  5. the gentle author permalink*
    March 18, 2010

    Woops! Pardon my grammar.

  6. March 18, 2010

    These are wonderful – so touching, and yet, as you say, so funny too. Watts’ Hope is the inspiration for Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope… so we’re not quite finished with the Victorians yet.

  7. John permalink
    March 18, 2010

    Interesting point from Anisoptera. In defence of our Gentle Author, I myself am undecided on a single correct current usage of ‘begging the question’, and so I will merely quote an entry in Wikipedia (for all its faults) : “Arguments over whether this current usage should be considered incorrect are an example of debate over linguistic prescription and description and the historical evolution of language.”

    Our beautiful language is in constant flux, and what is today considered a sin will tomorrow be considered correct. Consider the development over probably 300 years of amn’t/am’t/ain’t alongside the more accepted “aren’t”.

    I’ll spam this article no further!

  8. Lucy permalink
    March 18, 2010

    I prefer this supposedly ”incorrect” use of beg the question. Language evolves. It is only a matter of time before this becomes the completely accepted and ”correct” meaning of the phrase, though it is interesting to learn of its origins.

    But surely you mean ”whoops”! Just kidding..

  9. March 18, 2010

    I have visited Postmans Park – I also have a small book bought in the gift shop of the nearby Museum of London about it. It is a very poignant memorial and hidden away in the little oasis of understated planting (tree ferns) amongst the buildings which tower around it. I am not particularly sentimental but I found myself moved to tears by the plaques. I also listened to a play on Radio 4 a few years ago which was about some of the heroes and heroines which was very well done and enlarged my understanding of the stories – I wonder if it is possible to locate this, as it is well worth listening to. Postmans Park is one of the little hidden treasures of the City.

  10. Anne permalink
    March 18, 2010

    How very strange. Loved the post and all previous posts however they are written .

  11. John permalink
    March 19, 2010

    The Watts Memorial is most certainly an extremely touching and evocative Victorian curiosity which is extremely close to my heart. I love to spend summer afternoons there, just sitting and listening to people talk about the fascinating tablets and wondering about the stories behind them.
    For those eager to find out more about the history of the memorial and the people who feature, a fabulous new book has recently been published by the Watts Gallery. It is entitled ‘Postman’s Park: G. F Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice’ and you can get it in the shops nearby the park or online directly from the Watts Gallery at http://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/shop_publications.html
    It’s a beautifully illustrated hardback book and only cost £10 which is a real bargain. I’d heartily recommend it for anyone who has any interest in this extraordinary place.

  12. John permalink
    March 19, 2010

    In answer to Margaret’s question, the first twenty-four tablets (the more randomly decorated, greenish coloured ones that fill the middle row) were designed and made by William De Morgan, a ceramicist and acquaintance of Watts’.

    However, in 1906, De Morgan’s debut novel Joseph Vance was an unexpected hit and he decided to abandon his, by then financially waning, ceramics business to become a novelist.

    A new manufacturer was sought and eventually the contract was given to Doulton of Lambeth who went on to make the next twenty-nine tablets (the uniformly decorated blue and white ones that form the top and bottom rows). Personally, I much prefer the De Morgan tiles, for me they just convey the Arts and Crafts ethos that partly underpinned the ideas behind the monument itself and they just seem more personal and individual than the Doulton ones.

  13. Julian permalink
    May 1, 2010

    I love this park and think it’s great that all these people, some only young children are still remembered and are being talked about all these years later. Personally I don’t see how the circumstances around any of their deaths can be any source of amusement, what each of them did was incredible.
    I’d like to think if I was in the same position as any of them I’d do the same, but I probably wouldn’t be brave enough.

  14. May 22, 2010

    London (and indeed England) is filled with memorials to the rich and titled, or military heroes who were rich or titled or both. How refreshing that G. F. Watts chose to erect a memorial to nobodies who would otherwise have been forgotten despite their heroic deeds. Postman’s Park is definitely a MUST VISIT on my next trip to London.

  15. Lauren permalink
    September 26, 2012

    Love Postmans Park. Only shown it three years ago but WOW! Have made sure everyone I go up to London with knows of it now. Moving and poignant memorials to some truly wonderful people

  16. Barbara permalink
    March 9, 2013

    I fail to see anything funny in these plaques. Would I be brave enough if faced with one of these situations? I guess most of us would. I am left wondering what it would have been like to the families left behind, and my mind wanders when the news was broken. Somehow the two overtaken in quicksands captures me. What a dreadful death.

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