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?


HughB said...

I think it is a splendid idea to commemorate someone's supreme sacrifice in this fashion, and should definitely be continued - these memorials should not be treated as a work of art, that was never the intention. 'Reprographic operator' is a modern job description - it would be interesting to see changes in employment over the years. The park would be a beacon in this age of self promotion and agrandisement.

Amber said...

I would like to see the memorial added to as the years go on. It is such a poignant place, and the stories are so individual and unique, and it would be quite a time capsule to see this added to as time goes by. Not all the time, though one per year or every other year might be interesting. Something of the moment, to both honour the person and to capture an event that might otherwise be forgotten. That's how I read the plaques now in the park, and visitors whom I explain the memorial to think that it is such a special place. They feel the addition of the Pitt plaque is very nice indeed.

CarolineLD said...

There does seem to be a lot of positive reaction to the Leigh Pitt plaque - I like it, myself. And thank you for confirming that 'reprographic operator' is a modern title, Hugh: I thought it was, but started doubting myself! It would also be intriguing to see more of the tiles Watts had originally planned.