Sunday, 5 April 2009

Postman's Park (44): what have we learned?

Watts intended his memorial to serve an exemplary purpose: those who saw it should be inspired by its stories of bravery and selflessness. Having considered all those incidents, we can now think about whether they have anything to teach the modern passer-by.

Discovering the histories behind the tiles has convinced me that they are more than merely quaint or archaic. True, they do show us aspects of life which have now vanished - from stage lighting using open flames to Zeppelin air raids. At the same time, they are very human stories which do achieve what Watts desired - they can make us think about what we ourselves would and should do in similar situations.

There are, of course, some practical lessons. These include the value of life-saving courses: several of the drownings could have been prevented had the rescuers known how to deal with a struggling person. One of the saddest lessons is that bravery in the heat of the moment can often be futile: several rescuers died trying to save people who had already escaped.

The memorial also throws up contradictions. When children were left in charge of toddlers, terrible accidents involving paraffin lamps, traffic or open water could occur. On the other hand, those children took their responsibilities as seriously as any adult would, even risking (and sacrificing) their own lives to save younger siblings or friends.

What the monument does not, but perhaps should, tell us is that such heroism did not end in the 1920s but continues today. To take just one example, the Royal Life Saving Society in its guidance on beach safety refers to British police officer Jonny Speakman who drowned on holiday in Australia while saving a child caught in a riptide in 2005.

For all Postman's Park posts, click here.


Frustrated Poet said...

I've really enjoyed your series on Postman's Park which is a place which has for many years held a fascination for me. I have enjoyed reading your posts which have told the stories behind the plaques and which have inspired me to write a short poem - The London Tourist Guide - on my blog. Keep up the good work with your blog which makes interesting reading. All the best, FP.

CarolineLD said...

Thank you very much! The poem really captures the atmosphere of the park. I'll include a link to it in my next and very final post in the series, of further reading suggestions.

Linda said...

I have very much enjoyed this series! It's interesting to see the human stories behind the plaques, and to go into them in so much more details. Thanks for doing this. :)

Adam said...

Thanks for posting all these. They are mostly very sad, but give an interesting insight into the times.

Do you know how or why Watts chose the individual stories though, and how did you research them all?

CarolineLD said...

Watts chose the stories from newspaper reports (which probably explains why some, such as Sarah Smith the pantomime dancer, are inacccurate). His general principle was that people should not have been doing their job, although he did suggest that if they went far beyond the call of duty then they might qualify. When he died, his wife and a committee took over and appear to have applied the criteria a little differently - the police officers on the memorial were added after his death.

My research was done much the same way: I started with the newspapers. The level of reports varied widely, but some included a full account of the inquest, for example. Many interesting hours in the Newspaper Library!