Postman’s Park in London contains a simple but evocative Memorial to unsung heroes of the 19th and early 20th century, in the form of a collection of glazed Doulton plaques on a wall protected from the elements by a loggia. Each of these plaques commemorates someone who, in tragic circumstances, died a hero, trying to save the lives of others.
What and where is Postman’s Park in the City of London?
First the name: the park acquired the Postman’s Park name because during it’s heyday in the 19th century and before it became the site of the Memorial, it was popular as a lunchtime retreat with workers from the General Post Office in nearby Clerkenwell, long since demolished.
Situated between King Edward Street, Little Britain and Angel Street and just round the corner from St Paul’s Cathedral whose steps are normally crowded with tourists hugging backpacks and guitars and where the streets are full of bankers and financiers bursting with self-importance, it contains a gallery of tiled memorials to extraordinary people who were, nonetheless, just ordinary citizens.
The brainchild of the Victorian painter and philanthropist, G.F. Watts (1817-1904), a radical socialist who felt deeply about the dreadful conditions of the London poor, and who had twice refused a Baronetcy, it is now regarded as a Memorial to Watts who made no attempt to hide his dislike of the greed of the upper classes of the time.
About the Tiled Memorials
A long, high wall covered with Royal Doulton ceramic plaques, decorated in burnt orange and blue, names, ages, occupations and means of death engraved on the tiles – this is a wall before which people have been known to stand with tears in their eyes. Tragedy after tragedy told in a few simple phrases, bring to life drownings, raging fires, train disasters, and runaway horse accidents, in which these workers and children had saved someone’s life by giving their own.
There is seating under the plaques and the garden area of the park is a restful place with bright flower beds and a gently trickling fountain, interesting shrubs and flowering plants. Of special interest are the large banana tree, musa basjoo, which flowers in late summer, and the dove tree, davidia involucrata. In fact, Postman’s Park is a perfect place for a lunchtime picnic.
In 1887, Watts wrote to The Times to suggest the creation of a park to commemorate ‘heroic men and women’ who had given their lives attempting to save others. This, he said, would be a worthy way to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year.
His letter to The Times did not stimulate any interest, however, but in 1898, St Botolph’s Church at Aldersgate purchased land that had previously been owned by the City Parochial Foundation, and they approached him regarding the Memorial. So, on the site of the former churchyard of St. Bolophs, there was erected a 50ft long open gallery along the wall of which he planned to place glazed Doulton tablets commemorating acts of bravery, each one detailing a heroic act.
One of Britain’s leading tile designers at that time, William de Morgan, agreed to work with Watts. Their collaboration, first unveiled in 1900, is what you see on the early plaques when you visit Postman’s Park.
About the Tiles and Plaques
The plaques could easily be overlooked in the somewhat hidden corner of the park, but these beautiful hand-lettered tiles hand-painted at the Royal Doulton factory, when once you see them, live with you forever. Each one tells the story of a boy or girl, man or woman, who died trying to save another at the expense of his own. Told in a few poignant words, they nevertheless manage to paint a picture of a life unfulfilled that ended in tragedy. Take, for instance,
- the young Alice “daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life”. Or
- William “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”.
The stories seem almost Dickensian until the very real tragedies these plaques represent hit home and one realises that this was real life, not fiction. Life was harsh for those who didn’t own land or property of some sort in those days: violence and disease were everyday events. Prostitution and child abuse were rife in late-Victorian London, and these children who died, many of them orphans or ‘indentured workers’, each and every one of them would have been working at some poorly paid job.
Reading the tiles one is struck by the occupations that don’t exist any more and the causes of death that remind one of nothing so much as a Victorian engraving – a runaway carriage of four with a child trampled beneath the horses, a boy in the Thames (probably a mudlark) attempting to swim to land with his friend in his arms.
G.F. Watts and his Reasons for Erecting the Memorial
GF Watts wanted to use his art as a force for social change and his intention was to build a memorial that honoured ordinary people, people who would not have had a burial tomb at Highgate, Brompton or even St. Pancras & Islington Cemetery.
Watts had for many years collected newspaper reports of heroic actions and the plaques were based on these cuttings.
It was planned to have one hundred and twenty tiles in place for the opening, but sadly, it was only possible to erect four. By this time Watts was too ill to attend the unveiling and only nine more were added during his lifetime. His wife Mary, took over the work and added what she could before her death. Then, 78 years later, in 2009, the Diocese of London added a new tablet to commemorate one Leigh Pitt who rescued a nine-year-old boy from drowning in a canal. The plaque reads:
- Leigh Pitt, Reprographic operator, aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself. June 7, 2007.
Today you can see rows of blank spaces, although no doubt there were unsung heroes in the intervening years who were never commemorated.
This wall of tiled plaques to these forgotten Londoners is one of the city’s most moving Memorials and in 1972, along with other key elements in the park, it was Listed as a Grade ll site.
Postman’s Park in Recent Film
The BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning film Closer which stars Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen (based on the play of the same name by Patrick Marber) references Postman’s Park in that the character Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) fabricates her identity based on Ayers’ tablet on the Memorial which the film character had read.
How to get there:
Tube – Central St Paul’s
Buses: 4, 8, 25, 56, 141, 100, 172, 521, 242