Sunday 24 April 2016

Postman's Park (46): celebrating the memorial

It may be distinctly Victorian, but the Watts Memorial is no mere relic: it remains a valued part of London life. From events to books, here's a quick look at the ways it is being celebrated in the present. 

In 2009, the memorial was restored and an information plaque was added alongside, mirroring the distinctive style of its tiles. The completion of this project was celebrated by an unveiling, dramatic performances and readings in the park. 

Lone Twin Theatre Co performed an extract of 'Daniel Hit By A Train'

'Heroes of Everyday Life' sung for the first time in a century, by Alexander Knox

Last year, the Friends of the Watts Memorial was established - you can join here - and they're bringing another event to the Park next month. On the evening of Friday 13 May, you can enjoy an after-hours visit, with a talk by Dr John Price and refreshments; tickets are £12 (£10 for members). 

John Price is the author of several books about the Memorial, including Postman's Park: G F Watts's Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. This book is concerned with the history of the memorial itself and a thoughtful consideration of the purposes of such commemoration, rather than the individual stories. However, it does discuss Alice Ayres in some detail and has photographs and transcripts of all the plaques. A fascinating volume for £7.50 paperback.

For more about the stories behind each plaque, his next book, Heroes of Postman's Park: Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Victorian London looks not only at the events memorialised here but also at the lives and family backgrounds of the people commemorated. 
H Dagnall self-published Postman's Park and its Memorials in 1987. A smaller pamphlet illustrated with line-drawings, its emphasis is upon the individual stories and it includes a small amount of background for most of the plaques. I found my copy on abebooks.

Finally, Public Sculpture of the City of London by Philip Ward-Jackson contains a substantial section on Postman's Park - as well as impressive coverage of the rest of the square mile. This book is published by Liverpool University Press and costs £30.

Moving away from non-fiction, The London Tourist Guide is a poem inspired by, and effectively evoking the atmosphere of, the memorial. If you'd prefer prose, parts of Audrey Niffeneger's Her Fearful Symmetry take place in the park. And a film suggestion? It would have to be Closer, which begins and ends in Postman's Park.

Friday 22 April 2016

Theatre and fire

Sometimes it's not the obvious things that draw you in and lead to new stories. On a London Historians tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, there were plenty of eye-catching features: statues, chandeliers, elaborately-decorated rooms, all designed to be noticed and deserving of attention. Yet a small label on a bit of wood down in the cellars also caught my eye, and proved worth a little research. 

Merryweather & Sons were makers of fire appliances, and the business dated back to 1692 (a period in London's history when people must have been particularly aware of the need for fire precautions). Founded by Nathaniel Hadley, it became Merryweathers in the nineteenth century, when one Moses Merryweather - who had originally joined the company as an apprentice and later married the owner's niece - took over. They began in Long Acre, selling fire pumps and leather buckets, and stayed there until, ironically, the factory burned down in 1873. Another had been opened in Lambeth in 1862; both were replaced by a new one in Greenwich, opened in 1876. In 1892 it became a limited company, Merryweather Ltd - suggesting that the Theatre Royal label is a Victorian survival. Only in the late twentieth century did the company move out of London, and it is now based in Kent.

1886 advertisement

The company enjoyed great success, winning the international fire engine competition at Crystal Palace - and a government contract - with the Merryweather Sutherland, a horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine in 1863. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had diversified into other kinds of water supply equipment as well as safety rafts, dredging apparatus, tram engines, and an early petrol cycle. However, firefighting equipment would remain their main business.

View of the Drury Lane fire from Westminster Bridge (artist unknown)

Fire was a huge concern for theatres: the Theatre Royal Drury Lane famously burned down in February 1809. Its owner Richard Brinsley Sheridan had rebuilt the fabulous theatre just 15 years earlier - complete with the latest fire-prevention features, including water tanks and an iron safety curtain. Watching it go up in flames, drink in hand, Sheridan famously said, 'A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.'

Saturday 9 April 2016

Barton Passage, Manchester

The nineteenth century saw a profusion of shopping passages, offering welcome respite from the dirt, traffic and chaos of the city. Paris had an extensive network, many of which survive; London had fewer, but it's hard to beat the grandeur of examples such as the Burlington Arcade. While these mainly dated from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, other cities built theirs later in the Victorian period. Manchester has a beautiful example from 1871: the Barton Arcade on Deansgate. 

A slightly cramped entrance between buildings hardly prepares the visitor for the light, soaring construction of iron and glass revealed inside. In Pevsner's guide to Manchester, Clare Hartwell describes it as 'one of the loveliest Victorian shopping arcades in the country'. 

The arcades of London and Paris are clearly constrained by their sites, narrow and sometimes dog-legged; by contrast, the Barton Arcade feels relatively spacious. This is partly thanks to its soaring roof, but also reflects a change in inspiration and purpose. While the earlier arcades originally aspired to fashionable exclusivity, the Barton Arcade is acknowledged to have taken its inspiration from the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in Milan, much larger and closer to today's shopping centres. Although it wasn't fully completed when Barton Arcade was being built, it had already been featured in The Builder - an honour its smaller Manchester counterpart would later share. 

This was also a rather different situation to the in-filling of cramped sites in the city. Deansgate had recently been widened, and many of the buildings originally lining the street demolished; the Barton Buildings were among the first new constructions. Their name is that of the developer, John Hope Barton, a local property owner whose arcade cost him £45,000 to build. The generous payment he received for buildings demolished in the road-widening scheme, as well as the grant of this site in compensation, no doubt helped with the cost! 

The Arcade was restored in the 1980s, so the shop fronts and floor are not original. However, the sweep of curving balconies built by Corbett, Raby & Sawyer is intact, and the fabulous ironwork from Macfarlane's foundry creates a roof which is as breathtaking as when first built. 

Sunday 3 April 2016

Postman's Park (45): 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 also tells us - with just one plaque - is that such heroism did not end in the 1920s but continues today. The actions of Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007, are recorded in the first and probably last new tile added since the 1920s.