Tucked away in a quiet area of East London is a peaceful place that goes by the unassuming name of Postman’s Park (left), so called because it once stood in the shadow of the city’s old General Post Office building. At first glance, you might mistake it for any green space in the city, with its manicured lawn, leafy trees and decorative water fountain. But if you took the time to venture through the gates, you would stumble upon something far from ordinary.
On a stone wall, underneath a makeshift overhang, are a series of ceramic plaques, each one painted beautifully with the names of people who died while trying to save the lives of others. One plaque reads:
And on and on they go. The first time I stumbled upon this memorial was on a walking tour given by Tina Hodgkinson. I was instantly overwhelmed with sadness. So many of the people listed on these plaques were children, like John Clinton, aged 10, who drowned ‘trying to save a companion younger than himself’. Or Henry James Bristow, aged 8, who ‘saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes’ only to catch fire himself and die later of burns and shock. And then there was Solomon Galaman, aged 11, who saved his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street on 6 September 1901. His plaque reads: ‘Mother I saved him but I could not save myself’.
Unlike many valiant memorials dedicated to those in the armed forces, this was created entirely in honour of the everyday hero. It is a testament to the incredible sacrifices we, as humans, can and do make on a daily basis.
But how did this memorial come into existence in the first place? And why did we stop creating plaques for it?
On 5 September 1887, the painter and sculptor, Fredric Watts (pictured below), wrote to The Times, proposing a tribute of a different sort for Queen Victoria’s upcoming Golden Jubilee. Watts believed that art could act as a force for social change, and suggested a didactic monument celebrating ‘heroism in every-day life’. He wrote:
It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten. The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.
Watts referred to the case of Alice Ayres, a nursemaid who died on 12 September 1859 in a house fire after she saved the lives of her employer’s children by throwing a mattress out the window and dropping them to safety. She, herself, was overcome by the fumes and stumbled out of the window to her death.
Watts proposed that a marble wall inscribed with the names of everyday heroes be built in Hyde Park. Sadly, his suggestion could not garner enough support, leading him to quip that if he had proposed a race course instead, he would have had plenty of sympathizers. In the years that followed, Watts continued to lobby for the memorial. Both he and his wife redrafted their wills to leave a bulk of their estate to its construction, and even considered selling their home to finance the project.
Then, in 1898, Henry Gamble—Vicar of St Botolph’s Aldersgate and longtime friend of Watts—acquired the land which would later be called Postman’s Park, and Watts suggested that the memorial be built there. Although there was resistance to the idea of the park being used in this manner, construction began a year later after the necessary funds were secured (Watts himself donated the extraordinary sum of £700 to the cause).
On 30 July 1900, the 50 foot long wall with space for 120 ceramic plaques was unveiled to the public. Watts, who was then 83 years old, was too ill to attend the ceremony. He died 4 years later.
Over the course of several decades, plaques were added to the wall, many of the names chosen from Watts’s collection of newspaper clippings he had accumulated over the years about ‘everyday heroes’. In 1931, the 52nd plaque commemorating the life of Herbert Maconoghu—who died aged 13 while trying to rescue two drowning classmates—was placed. This would be the last name added to the wall in the 20th century.
After Watts’s wife and lifetime advocate of the memorial died in 1938, the wall fell from fashion and it seemed that no names would ever be added to it again. Then in 2007, a man named Leigh Pitt died while rescuing a 9-year-old boy from drowning in a canal in Thamesmead. His colleagues and fiancée, Hema Shah, approached the Diocese of London to suggest Pitt be added to the wall. Despite opposition from the Watts Gallery to proposals that the memorial be completed, a new plaque commemorating Pitt’s heroic actions was added on 11 June 2009.
Today, Postman’s Park remains an obscure destination, attracting only a handful of visitors who are drawn, perhaps, to the strangeness of the Victorian deaths chronicled on Watts’s wall. After all, not many people are trampled under the hooves of runaway horses, or die tragically in theatre fires these days. In this way, the plaques are as much a historical testament to an era long gone as they are to the lives of the people whose names adorn them.
To date, there are currently no plans to add further plaques to the memorial. I, for one, hope we don’t have to wait another 78 years before we see another ‘everyday hero’ commemorated in such a beautiful and thoughtful way.
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