Monday 28 March 2016

Postman's Park (44): Leigh Pitt

In June 2009, something very special was added to the memorial: the first new plaque for over seventy years.

Leigh Pitt jumped into the canal at Thamesmead to rescue a nine-year-old boy who had fallen in while playing. He succeeded in holding the child, Harley Bagnall-Taylor, above water until passers-by could pull him out using a hosepipe. However, because of the high canal walls, Mr Pitt was unable to get out himself and drowned.

His colleagues, particularly Jane Michele, and his fiancée Hema Shah persuaded the Diocese of London to allow a plaque to be added to the Memorial. It was unveiled in the presence of the Lady Mayoress.

The design, wording, and above all the bravery they record fit perfectly into the memorial. Watts would have approved of Ms Shah's comment that 'I would hope Leigh's actions would inspire someone to help another'. That was exactly what he intended for the memorial.

Leigh Pitt's plaque reads:


The Diocese of London indicated that they would consider other applications for plaques commemorating 'acts of remarkable heroism'. Another name was soon put forward: the Rev Stephen Arkwright, who went on holiday to Southwold in 1965. While there, he saw a girl in difficulties in the sea and swam out to rescue her. Tragically, although she and another would-be rescuer were taken back to shore in by a passing dinghy, Rev Arkwright drowned. Before his death, he had been working as an assistant librarian at Sion College. When Paula Flynn came across his story there, she launched a campaign to have his bravery commemorated in Postman's Park. 

However, the move to allow new plaques was by no means universally popular. John Price, for example, does not share my view of the Leigh Pitt plaque: in Heroes of Postman's Park, he criticises the description 'reprographic operator' as 'strained and ... cumbersome' and disapproves of the word 'sadly' as out of keeping with the Memorial's purpose - education, not commemoration. He points out that the Memorial is not incomplete, but unfinished: Watts had identified all the cases which were to fill the 120 spaces. New ones are therefore not needed, and to identify and add them risks undermining both the historical nature of the Memorial and any possibility of completing it as Watts intended. 

When the Diocese met to consider the application for another new plaque, it had undertaken further consultation and on this occasion, changed its view. The committee noted that the memorial was a personal project by Watts and his wife Mary, that the language it used was of its period, and that there are now alternative ways available to commemorate civilian bravery. It concluded that the addition of further plaques would be highly unlikely. 

So, should the memorial be kept as a purely historical monument, or should new plaques be considered? There is no clear answer. Although I have great sympathy for a purist approach, I rather like the idea of its purpose being pursued into the 21st century. Should we still be seeking to educate and inspire in this way today, and should we use the Watts Memorial to do it?

Friday 25 March 2016

Inside Duck Island Cottage


It's a rustic fantasy in the centre of London: a tiny cottage orné bedecked with porches, trellises, diamond-paned windows and carved bargeboards, Duck Island Cottage sits beside the lake in St James's Park, looking more like a country cottage than any real country cottage could manage.

Designed by John Burges Watson (not a famous architect) and built by Mr Dickson of Earl Street, the cottage was built in the 1840s to replace an earlier one destroyed seventy years earlier. It was built as a home for the park bird-keeper; by the time bird-keeper Thomas Hinton died in 1953, having lived there since 1900, it was considered unfit for habitation. Demolition was considered, but a combination of concerns about plans for replacement and a plea for preservation from the Royal Fine Art Commission saw it repaired instead. From 1959 to 1982, two park keepers lived there; it was then finally restored and today, it's home of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust and of London Open Garden Squares Weekend

But could the interior live up to its exterior? Usually, we couldn't know because the cottage is not open to the public. However, it recently hosted an exhibition on bees, allowing visitors to sneak a look inside as they explored the artworks on show. 

And of course, no visit to St James's Park is complete without a look at the pelicans!

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Housing horseless carriages

Mews... wooden stable doors... We may think we could make a good guess as to what this building's purpose was. However, it never housed horses but is one of London's oldest car parks, in Wells Mews near Oxford Street. 

London probably had the world's first multi-storey car park, at Denman Street, which opened in 1901 and closed as recently as 2008. Its owners, City & Suburban Electric Carriage Company, had quickly added several more sites in Wardour Street and Westminster. The latter was known as 'Niagara', in tribute to the company's most popular model of car.

These inner-city, multi-storey car parks didn't have the ramps between floors which we expect today. Instead, they had electric lifts - and the one in Wells Mews is still in use today. Marks on the floor suggest that there may have been a turntable, too.

The car park remains in operation, run by NCP and serving the Sanderson Hotel. (This occupies the wallpaper company's former premises, designed by Reginald Uren, and is rather typical of its own, later decade.)

Saturday 12 March 2016

155 Old Kent Road

Among the terraced buildings of the Old Kent Road is a detached house, set back from the road and looking a little ill at ease in its surroundings. This building, later known as the Rolls Estate Office and now a church, was built in 1795 by Michael Searles. He and his son and grandson lived in the house and had their office here until the latter died in 1863. 

All three Searles were surveyors to the Rolls Estate. Michael Searles was the son of a Greenwich surveyor and built developments in the Blackheath and Greenwich area as well as his work for the Rolls Estate. His surviving buildings include the Paragon in Blackheath and the Georgian houses of Surrey Square

Surrey Square, © Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

The Rolls family were wealthy land-owners in Monmouthshire, Wales; but they also owned this valuable estate in the Old Kent Road and lived in The Grange, Bermondsey. The most famous family member was Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls Royce. He also has the rather less pleasant distinction of being the first Englishman to die in an aviation accident, when his plane crashed in 1910 during a flying display. 

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Postman's Park (43): memorial in a memorial

The Watts Memorial is named for its creator but is intended to commemorate the 'heroic self-sacrifice' of others. However, the artist who founded it is not forgotten here. Alongside the tiles commemorating acts of 'ordinary heroes' was placed a modest memorial to Watts himself. He certainly had a claim to be remembered beyond his role in the Postman's Park plaques.

George Frederic Watts was among the most popular of Victorian artists, considered the Michaelangelo of nineteenth-century Britain by his contemporaries. Friends included the pre-Raphaelites, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Lord Tennyson. His sculpture Physical Energy is in Hyde Park, while other works are in the Tate and National Portrait Galleries. His former studio at Compton is a gallery celebrating his life and work.

Much of Watts' art had a wider social purpose; the 'Hall of Fame' series of portraits, intended to provide positive examples of eminent contemporaries, was effectively a counterpart to the Postman's Park project. The latter was similarly designed to provide a good moral example to those who viewed it, as well as a recognition of the ordinary people commemorated within.

However, the statuette's inscription does nothing to describe Watts the celebrated Royal Academician. Instead, it simply records his part in the memorial: