London is a city full of strange and surprising things; where the ancient and the modern co-exist (not always peacefully) amidst layer upon layer of this city’s sprawling history. An intriguing example of this is Postman’s Park; a small and rather lovely peaceful green space in the middle of the busy City of London – an unexpected oasis which is also home to one of the most poignant and unusual memorials in the country.
Taking its modern name from its lunchtime popularity with posties from the nearby GPO building, Postman’s Park has a history that goes back many centuries. In some ways, it has always been a site of memorial – it began life as a medieval churchyard and burial ground (you can still see some of the gravestones from this incarnation – they have carefully been moved from their original locations to mark the boundaries of the modern park) attached to the nearby St Botolph’s Aldersgate church.
The land became a public park in 1880 after London’s massively overcrowded burial grounds were closed by the 1851 Burials Act. The park expanded over time, incorporating similar neighbouring spaces, although this led to some debate over ownership of the land which was not resolved until the beginning of the 20th century.
However, parts of the park and the Watts Memorial itself (see below) were finally protected by being Grade II listed in the early 1970s. The park has since featured in the 2004 film adaptation of Patrick Marber’s play Closer, and is still regularly used and enjoyed by visitors and local City workers alike.
The Watts Memorial:
Almost as soon as you enter Postman’s Park, your eyes are drawn to an open wooden gallery in one corner. This elegant low gallery, with its tiled sloping roof and row of wooden benches, looks, at first glance, like nothing more than the type of sheltered seating area you might find in any park anywhere in the country. However, when you get up close, it becomes clear that it is more than that – this restful corner of the City actually houses what has to be the most unusual and moving memorial anywhere in the UK.
The construction of this memorial has its roots in the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 – it was during these celebrations that the successful and well-known artist G.F. Watts wrote a letter to in which he laid out an idea that had been long playing on his mind. A believer in the power of art as a strong and necessary force for social change, Watts had come up with a plan to commemorate what he called “Unknown Worth”. His letter to the newspaper explained further:
It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty’s reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.
The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.
Sadly, Watts’ obviously deeply considered and well-meant suggestion was not taken up by the authorities. But he was determined to commemorate those ordinary men and women whose heroic actions were liable to be forgotten by the wider world – so he decided to fund the project himself, and the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was born. Originally opening in Postman’s Park in 1900 with a mere four names on it, the memorial has gradually expanded over time and is still in use today.
Modern visitors will find an explanation as to precisely what the memorial is and why the individuals commemorated were so chosen on a plaque placed close to the gallery:
[This memorial] contains plaques to those who have heroically lost their lives trying to save another. Watts believed that these ‘everyday’ heroes provided models of exemplary behaviour and character.
And these genuinely were ‘everyday’ heroes and heroines. Each ceramic tile plaque (the original batch were designed and hand-made by the artist William De Morgan, but later tiles were made by the Doulton factory in Lambeth) commemorates individuals as diverse as 17-year old Elizabeth Boxall of Bethnal Green, who was killed rescuing a child from the path of a runaway horse, and Thomas Simpson, who “died of exhaustion after saving many lives from the breaking ice at Highgate Ponds.”
Those chosen by Watts to be included on the memorial were both young and old, and came from all walks of life – there are labourers and doctors, firemen and clerks, housewives and stewardesses, police officers and military men, schoolchildren and clergymen, as well as others with slightly more unusual jobs (such as that of Sarah Smith, who was a ‘pantomime artiste’, and Godfrey Maule Nicholson, who managed a distillery).
After Watts died in 1904, his wife Mary (an artist and social reformer in her own right) continued her late husband’s project for some years, sporadically adding plaques to the memorial right up until 1931. But by then her focus was on the running of the Watts Gallery in Surrey, and her interest in the memorial in Postman’s Park had all but disappeared, meaning that the project was left incomplete.
Between 1931 and 2009, no new plaques appeared on the memorial wall – until the friends and family of Leigh Pitt enquired of the Diocese of London (who own the land) as to whether he would be a suitable candidate for commemoration there. In June 2007, 30-year old Leigh had bravely saved a young lad who had been drowning in a Thamesmead canal, but – tragically – had been unable to save himself.
Despite The Watts Gallery’s apparent previous refusals of other suggested additions to the memorial over the years, agreement was reached and Leigh Pitt’s plaque was added to the wall in June 2009. When I visited Postman’s Park recently, there was a single red rose laid on top of Leigh’s plaque – a small, sweet personal gesture from someone who loved him which brought a tear to my eye.
And it’s little things like that which make the Watts Memorial so unusual and so moving. Each plaque tells the story of an ordinary person who lived an ordinary life but who also did something extraordinary to help another; stories and individuals that would, in many cases, no longer be remembered by anyone simply because the protagonists were not famous or influential enough to have their heroic deeds recorded in any other way.
Most public memorials are to well-known and powerful public figures of their day, or, like many of the thousands of war memorials in the UK, simply list the names of the deceased with no indication of who they really were and how they died. The Watts Memorial is different: by telling these stories of the bravery and sacrifice of everyday folk it not only provides us with a glimpse into ordinary life in the past, it also democratises remembrance in a way seldom seen anywhere else.