Postman's Park

Postman's Park was laid out in 1880 on the site of an ancient burying ground and the filled in moat of the Roman wall. It was called Postman's Park because it was around the corner from the General Post Office (GPO) where Anthony Trollope worked in between novel writing. In the street, a statue of Rowland Hill, the penny post man, stands on the very edge of the sidewalk, facing the traffic, looking across to their long-gone offices in St Martin's le Grand.

Just past the old GPO and in sight of St Paul's are the ruins of Wren's Christchurch Greyfriars, blitzed in the great air raids of 1940 and never rebuilt. Only one wall and the steeple remain. What was once the nave and chancel is now a rose garden laid out to follow the old floor plan of aisles and pews.

Aldersgate Street is on the far side of Postman's Park. It was on this street in 1735 that John Wesley had that mystic spiritual experience which led him to found the Methodist church.

On one side of the park proper is the church of St Botolph-Without-Aldersgate, originally late Anglo-Saxon though this building is eighteenth century, with a stumpy wooden tower, built of the small palm- sized hand-made russet-red bricks of its age.

In the park itself there's a round pond with gold coloured fish and a fountain with moss on the plinth, a sundial (minus its gnomon), at least one great lime tree, oaks, planes, banana plants with tattered fronds, palms, and fern trees. (The City fathers are preparing for global warming.) And lawns and flower beds, of course, all neatly packed in a space that can't be much more than one oddly shaped acre in size.

But what Postman's Park is really famous for are the ceramic tablets or plaques commemorating men, women and children who gave their lives saving others (see links at end of document). It was the idea of the Victorian painter, George Frederic Watts. In 1887, the Queen's Jubilee year, Watts wrote to The Times, proposing a national memorial recording examples of everyday heroism and self sacrifice. He quoted the case of Alice Ayres: "a maid of all work at an oilmonger's in Gravel Lane who lost her life (in 1885) saving the lives of her master's children".

When nothing came of the idea, Watts decided to create his own memorial here in Postman's Park. In a loggia or open gallery, roofed with red tiles, are 53 53 glazed ceramic plaques designed by the de Morgan factory, where the earliest ones were also made; later tiles were made by Doulton. The lettering is elegant and delicate, old fashioned perhaps, in pale blue or pale mauve. The upper line of tablets has green edges with stylised crowns and urns (or at least they seem to be), and the lower ones are edged with blue flowers, their stems and leaves. Some tiles have individual motifs — flames, ships, anchors, sprays of leaves, even a fireman's helmet.

A surprising number commemorate children. Edward Morris, aged 10, drowned in the Grand Junction Canal trying to save his companion when they went swimming in the summer of 1897. David Selves, aged 12, died in Woolwich Reach "supporting his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms," September 1886. At 9 years old, William Fisher was the youngest: he died in Walworth in July1886 trying to save his little brother from being run over in the street.

Other deaths were brought about by astonishing bravery: Dr Rabbeth was treating a four year old boy for diphtheria. A tracheotomy was necessary but, since the child still couldn't breathe, the doctor used a tube to suck the infected matter out of his throat. Samuel Rabbeth, aged 28, died of diphtheria in October 1884. The child also died.

One of the last plaques records the death of Alfred Smith, a policeman, who died saving the lives of women and girls in an East End factory after it had been bombed by German Zeppelins in 1917.

In the loggia, too, is a bronze statuette of Watts in academic gown, holding a scroll. He was a Victorian with a social conscience. Painting portraits made him rich yet many of his works attack Mammon, industrial greed, progress (at the expense of others) or point up the conditions of the poor. Unsurprisingly, then, he spent his money on good causes like the Home Crafts and Industries Association which taught art to working people. (His wife held classes in their home.) He also gave money to St Jude's — now the Whitechapel Art Gallery — and gave his paintings free to galleries, such as the Tate, which had no admission charges. He deplored the killing of birds to adorn hats with their feathers. And, what might seem to us bizarre (but was much in keeping with the views of his Pre-Raphaelite friends), he was president of an Anti-Tight Lacing Society which, presumably, was set up to encourage women to loosen their stays (the main reason, it used to be said, why Victorian ladies were so prone to fainting.) He's not always highly regarded as a painter any longer though his "Memorial of Heroic Deeds" (which sounds so Victorianly off-putting) is a not a bad way to be remembered.

The City of London is only one mile square but every inch is thick with history. Once it was a far province of a great empire, then the English settled in its ruins and were harried in turn by Danish and Viking marauders, till Norman conquerors finally took over. It went from Celtic gods to Jupiter to Woden to saints with quaint English names like Ethelburga and Ethelreda. Its guilds and livery companies are medieval. Its Bishop condemned Tyndal to death for Englishing the Bible. Shakespeare stole an entire theatre, sneaking it away plank by plank at dead of night. Donne dressed himself in his shroud and preached of death and salvation from his coffin at St Paul's Cross. This city financed an empire, lost an empire, financed another. It's financed wars and civil wars, survived plague, fire, bombs, Reformation, Regicide, Restoration, Enlightenment, and will no doubt survive whatever comes next.

But it must say something about the city that it set aside a little space to remember how a labourer called Richard Farris died trying to save a washerwoman from drowning herself in the Surrey Canal. Their memorials were unveiled in 1900 by the Lord Mayor and the Bishop of London who was, no doubt, happy to read the Bible in Tyndal's English as perfected by King James's Greek and Hebrew scholars. The Victorians, like the rest of us, were just passing through.

Memorial Plaques

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Last modified 6 December 2007