Postman’s Park in the City of London is one of those ‘hidden gems’ that I thought everyone knew about. For this reason, I’ve never written about it, but the other week I did a walk with some people who worked a stone’s throw away. Their office overlooked the park, and after I met them in the foyer, just next to the Museum of London, our first stop was Postman’s Park. I thought they wouldn’t find it particularly interesting, but was quite astonished to discover they knew nothing about it, or at least not its incredibly intriguing memorial.
If you approach from Aldersgate (as we did) the name of which comes from one of the City’s ancient gates, you will ascend a small number of rather lopsided steps. To your left, on the street is a ‘street antique’, an old Police Box. Although these emergency telephone boxes were added to the streets of Glasgow as early as 1891, they weren’t adopted by the Metropolitan Police until the late 1920s. Predating two-way radios, Police Boxes effectively acted like a giant pager, the light on the top flashing to alert a nearby Police Officer that they needed to phone their local station. A larger version of the Police Box is now synonymous with Dr Who, and for fans of the long running BBC show, there’s still one standing outside Earl’s Court Station. If you happen to find that particular 'Tardis' on Google Maps, you’ll discover that by clicking on one of the arrows pointing towards it, Google have added quite a fun feature.
Postman’s Park was amalgamated from two church grounds, St Botolph’s Aldersgate, which you’ll see to your right, and Christchurch Greyfriars, which stands as a bombed out wreck close by. An act of Parliament in the mid 19th century resulted in what were considered out of town cemeteries being built beyond the confines of the city, where living cheek by jowl with so many dead people had become beyond hideous. Perhaps the most famous and visited of these burial grounds, is Highgate Cemetery. Incidentally, although set around a Parisian cemetery in 1785, Andrew Miller’s novel ‘Pure’ evokes the situation (which was very similar here in London in the 19th century) beautifully, should you wish to read it. Many of those buried were brought in to an ossuary beneath the church, as I discovered when visiting St Bride’s on Fleet Street a few years ago, and the burial grounds turned in to gardens. Because people had been buried on top of each other, covered with thin layers soil and lime (thus raising the ground level), it is said that it is for this reason, when entering churchyards, you are often required to walk up steps. Postman’s Park does quite clearly stand a good few feet above street level. You’ll notice the headstones stacked like cards against the surrounding walls.
In 1887, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, a painter and sculptor of the time, George Frederic Watts (he apparently shared the same birthday as composer George Frederic Handel – hence the name) suggested creating a memorial to ‘Heroic Self Sacrifice’, which is to say, ordinary people who died saving other people, who would have otherwise died, had they not been saved (if that makes sense). I think Watts’ idea was to have a big bronze statue embodying the sentiment. It was not accepted.
However, it would seem that the artist’s suggestion struck a chord with the Vicar of St. Botolph’s Aldersgate church, as over a decade later, he offered the church’s garden as a site to realise Watt’s idea.
Unveiled in 1900, the memorial had taken on an altogether different and more sympathetic angle, initially displaying 4 painted tiles, simply detailing the name of the deceased, the date and place their heroic deed occurred and a brief description of the events that took place. Watts died in 1904 and in that time, a further 9 tiles were added, followed by a further 35, overseen by his wife Mary. Interest and enthusiasm for the project gradually waned and the memorial, which looks like an elongated bus shelter (or loggia) became a forgotten enclave of the garden, given Grade II listed status in 1972.
Flash-forward to the late 1990s and playwright Patrick Marber, writes a play called ‘Closer’ which is premiered at the National Theatre. The play is then later made in to a film of the same name starring Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen. Key scenes and also the main plot twist centre around Postman’s Park, and in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you, but Portman’s character is called Alice Ayres, one of those remembered in Watts’ poignant memorial. She died on 24th April 1885, saving 3 children from a burning house in Borough.
Renewed interest in Postman’s Park, thanks in no small way to Marber’s play, might go some way to explaining why after a 78 year hiatus, a new tile was added, bearing the name of Leigh Pitt, who saved a boy from drowning in 2007, but was unfortunately unable to save himself.
It perhaps goes without saying that it is the human stories behind the facts that make history so interesting and bring it to life. Watts’ memorial to ‘Heroic Self Sacrifice’ epitomises this, and as you shuffle along absorbing the information presented, you will undoubtedly find yourself wondering who these people were, what they were like, envisaging the scene in which they died and the families they left behind. Someone called Dr John Price was evidently so affected by the memorial, that he spent a great deal of time unravelling the stories behind each of the people immortalised on the beautifully rendered tiles. He has published his findings in a book entitled ‘Heroes of Postman’s Park’, so should you wish to learn more about each of the names in Postman’s Park, you can. There’s also an accompanying mobile app, which is free to download and has been primarily designed to use whilst at the memorial, feeding you all those other details and insights you might crave.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.