Postman’s Park – A Lesson In Victorian Sensibilities

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a talk on Postman’s Park by Dr John Price, who has dedicated much of his academic career to the study of this unusual monument to Victorian acts of sacrifice.

The talk took place in St Botolph’s Without Aldersgate, which sits just next door, and Dr Price set about explaining the complex history that lies behind this rather strange memorial. Celebrated Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts had thought for some time that acts of self-sacrifice (considered a great virtue in the Victorian era) should be commemorated in some way, and so in September 1887 he wrote to the Times to propose a monument, thinking that it was rather fitting that this should coincide with the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. Whilst nothing came of this initial approach, he started to gather news clippings of events covering the period of the Queen’s fifty year reign, assembling leather-bound scrapbooks which could be used to identify suitable candidates.

There’s an apocryphal story that appears at this point, which states that Watts happened to be walking in the graveyard of St Botolph’s with the curate, Henry Gamble, who suggested that he might want to consider siting the memorial there. Whether there’s any truth to that tale or not, St Botolph’s did get involved at this point, with the formation of a committee of local dignitaries who were tasked with raising funds in order to bring the monument about. In 1898 the go-ahead to construct the monument was given, the park was expanded and in 1900 it was opened to the public.

Ceramicist William De Morgan (one of William Morris’s extended coterie of artists and designers) was commissioned to produce commemorative plaques which would line the 50 feet long and 9 feet wide structure, each one setting out the details of the acts of bravery by Victorian working class heroes and heroines. Four plaques were installed in 1900, with the first to be placed being that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist who was working at the Princess Theatre and saved the life of another performer from fire despite the fact that her own dress was wreathed in flames.

In 1902 another nine plaques appeared, but Watts’ direct involvement in the project was soon to end, as he died in 1904 at the grand old age of 87. At this point his wife, Mary Fraser-Tyler (33 years his junior and an artist in her own right) took over the project, and oversaw the installation of another eleven plaques in 1905, bringing the total to twenty-four. Unfortunately at this point De Morgan’s participation in the project also ended, as when asked to produce another twenty-four to bring the number to a round forty-eight he had to decline – while he was a great artist De Morgan was a poor businessman and his ceramics work had not proved to be profitable, so by this point he had moved on to other artistic endeavours that could at least keep a roof over his head.

Mrs Watts and the committee looked long and hard for another company to provide the plaques, and eventually settled on Royal Doulton, who had a factory in Lambeth. One suspects that the twenty-four additional pieces that they produced were not entirely to Watts’ satisfaction, because they were installed in 1908 without fanfare or ceremony. Eager to continue with the project over the following years the committee attempted to involve Mrs Watts with further commissions, but by this point she had lost interest. They decided to go it alone, unveiling a tablet in 1919 to contemporary hero policeman Alf Smith who had died two years before as he was trying to get the seamstresses of the local Debenham’s clothing factory to go back inside during a air-raid – it is believed that he is the first person in the UK to have been killed during daylight bombing.

In 1927 a new church warden was installed at St Botolphs, and took it upon himself to unearth the history of Postman’s Park. Discovering that she was still alive, he wrote to Mrs Watts to ask permission to open up public subscriptions to allow the work to continue – Watts replied, granting his wish and also sending over the leather-bound volumes containing the cases, which she had kept during the intervening years.

£250 was raised for the memorial, and this was used to undertake vital repairs and commission three more plaques. The warden decided to continue with the contemporary theme and wrote to the fire, ambulance and police services in London asking them whether any of their members would be appropriate recipients. The Metropolitan Police replied to his request, sending over the complete accounts of self-sacrificial acts by three serving police officers. These three new plaques dedicated to the boys in blue were unveiled in 1930, and can be found up in the top right corner of the memorial.

By this time the Postman’s Park memorial contained sixty-one plaques commemorating the lives of Londoners from the age of 8 to 61. Sadly, George Watts original plans had provided sufficient space for one hundred and fifty plaques in total, and he had also hoped that this peculiar London monument would inspire similar projects elsewhere around the country, but this was not to be. It’s history would have ended right there if it was not for Leigh Pitt – a worker at an office overlooking Postman’s Park, he drowned in the canal at Thamesmead in 2007 while saving the life of a young boy who had fallen in whilst fishing. A campaign by Pitt’s friends, family and colleagues eventually saw the first 21st century plaque unveiled during a memorial ceremony in June 2009…

Yesterday’s talk was organised by the City Of London Corporation’s Guildhall Library, who put on regular events that will be of interest to anyone with a fascination with the City of London. Find out more about their upcoming programme here.

Interesting Facts:
Postman’s Park is so-named because it was next door to a large General Post Office – postal workers would often spend time in the park during their lunch break.
Due to their reliance entirely on newspaper reporting, some of the plaques are rather inaccurate. Elizabeth Boxall, who is recorded as having saved a child from being run down by a horse, died an entire year after the incident from complications associated with her shattered leg. Ellen Donovan’s plaque doesn’t tell the whole story either – she rushed into a burning house not to save a random ‘neighbour’s children’, but her own nieces and nephews – her sister lived next door.
Through his exhaustive research, Dr Price believes that one of the stories recounted on the Postman’s Park plaques is entirely fictitious – an invention by a Victorian Fleet St hack if you will. He was unwilling to identify which one it was, but apparently a smartphone app promised later this year will reveal all…
Although it’s availability is rather limited, Dr Price’s 2008 book on Postman’s Park is available on Amazon.
About Pete Stean

Pete Stean is a London-based writer and photographer. He can also be found on Twitter and on Google Plus.

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