Long-time readers of this blog may remember a series of posts looking at the stories behind each plaque on the Watts Memorial to heroic self-sacrifice in Postman's Park. After five years, I think it's time to dust them off, so they will be (re)appearing each Sunday, updated where appropriate. (The usual mixture of new material will be published mid-week.)
The first post introduces us to the park itself. From next week, we will be plunged into the world of Victorian accidents and disasters.
Postman's Park (1): the park
A tiny patch of green among the City's buildings, Postman's Park was created in 1880 from the former churchyards of St Leonard, Foster Lane; St Botolph Aldersgate; and Christ Church Greyfriars. Its name comes from its proximity to the old General Post Office: the park was a popular place for postal workers to take a lunchbreak. Today, the park retains a Victorian feel, especially in the early autumn.
If the park has a theme, it is not the Royal Mail but memorials. Gravestones are now stacked at its edges.
More famously, and uniquely, a wall in the park displays rows of ceramic memorials to heroic self-sacrifice. Each tile commemorates someone who gave their life to save another; the emphasis is upon 'ordinary' people. This wall was the work of artist and social reformer George Frederick Watts. He wrote to the Times in 1887 suggesting such a memorial, but when the idea failed to be adopted he funded the project himself. The plaques, designed by him, were made by Royal Doulton; he seems to have selected the cases from newspaper reports. They were meant to serve a dual purpose: commemorating those who would otherwise be forgotten, and offering each story as an instructive example to others.
The memorial opened in 1900, with four plaques in place. Watts was personally responsible for a further nine before a committee was formed in 1904 to assist him. He died soon after, but his wife and the committee worked together to place a further forty tablets. The final tablets were unveiled in 1930. Despite occasional suggestions that further plaques should be added, none have been.
Accounts of Postman's Park often quote from some of the plaques, but all the stories deserve our attention - for the bravery they commemorate, for their human interest, and for the snapshot of Victorian England which they offer. I'm therefore going to be posting on each plaque in a more-or-less regular series. However, as we read these tales of Victorian heroism, we can also wonder: why hasn't the tradition continued since the deaths of Watts and his widow to commemorate today's ordinary heroes?
Update: since this post was originally written in 2008, another plaque has been added. It remembers Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007 saving a boy from drowning. However, there does not seem to be a wider revival of the memorial - yet.