In London, a Park for Heroes

The park holds 53 plaques, including the one above, commemorating acts of heroism by workaday Brits.
The park holds 53 plaques, including the one above, commemorating acts of heroism by workaday Brits. (Watts Gallery)
Sunday, December 18, 2005

One of a vacation's little pleasures is a detour that becomes a destination. On a recent visit to London, my wife and I had planned a full afternoon of museum-going, monument-gazing and strolling. Our walk began with an hour at the Tate Modern museum on the south side of the River Thames and was to end at the wonderful Museum of London, near the Barbican arts center.

When we were finished at the Tate, we headed across the pedestrians-only Millennium Bridge toward Saint Paul's Cathedral with the sound of the wooden bird calls sold by vendors along the embankment still twittering in our ears (you may find this more pleasant than we did). When we reached the cathedral, our path took us not to its grand west door but around back, through the churchyard. Here we sat for a few minutes marveling at the stonework, freshly cleaned as part of a 300th-anniversary restoration. Despite centuries of corrosive fumes and grime, the carving remains sharp and vivid; it was a revelation to see it stripped of accumulated filth.

The stretch north of Saint Paul's -- a direct walk up Aldersgate Street -- is uninspiring, with architecture that ranges from boring to ugly and without much window shopping to make up for it. But a little way along, just opposite Gresham Street, the tiresome succession of office buildings opens up to make room for a mid-18th-century church -- St. Botolph's -- and what appears to be its churchyard. A pleasant detour, we thought, and probably with some nice old gravestones to decipher. But no: It was a little park.

The sign said it was called Postman's Park. There's a nice fountain, and benches, and pathways winding through flowerbeds. And there is peace and quiet: something prized by the workers at the adjacent General Post Office, razed years ago. Many of them would take their breaks there; hence the name. That quaint bit of history would not, however, make this a destination for anyone but a vestpocket-park enthusiast.

What makes it extraordinary (apart from its use as a location in last year's film "Closer") is the cloisterlike wooden loggia at the far end. We saw that its wall was covered with inscriptions of some kind and -- still assuming some connection with St. Botolph's -- thought we would find memorials to long-gone parish worthies, unremarkable but atmospheric.

The park holds 53 plaques, including the one above, commemorating acts of heroism by workaday Brits.
The park holds 53 plaques, including the one above, commemorating acts of heroism by workaday Brits.( - Watts Gallery)
There are atmospheric memorials all right, but they are not to upright ladies and gentlemen who passed long and comfortable lives serving on committees. The blue-and-white tile plaques (some manufactured by Royal Doulton, though the most beautiful were made by the Chelsea ceramics designer William De Morgan) commemorate the heroism of ordinary people whose lives ended in acts of selfless bravery and who would otherwise be forgotten.

Many of them are heartrending, and some are horrific. "David Selves, aged 12, off Woolwich, supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms. September 12, 1886." "Elizabeth Boxall, aged 17, of Bethnal Green, who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse. June 20, 1888."

They remind us of the dangers that our forebears faced only a couple of lifetimes ago: "Samuel Rabbeth, medical officer of the Royal Free Hospital, who tried to save a child from diphtheria at the cost of his own life. October 26, 1884." We learn -- from a booklet by one H. Dagnall, M.A. -- that Rabbeth cleared an obstruction in the throat of a 4-year-old diphtheria patient the only way possible in an 1884 emergency: by putting his own lips to the tracheotomy tube. He knew the risk he was taking and died a few days later at the age of 28. The child died as well.

Occasionally, the inscriptions raise, if not a laugh, then at least a wry smile: "John Cranmer Cambridge, aged 23, a clerk in the London County Council, who was drowned near Ostend while saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner. August 8, 1901." A foreigner! Egad!

The loggia and plaques were installed by the idealistic artist George Frederic Watts -- at his own expense, after his public appeal to mark Queen Victoria's 1887 jubilee by recording "stories of heroism in every-day life" fell on deaf ears. He paid for the construction and the installation of the first 13 plaques; St. Botolph's provided the real estate. After Watts's death in 1904, his widow continued the work, adding 34 more. A final five were installed in 1930, for a total of 53. Each plaque consists of several tiles, with stylish lettering and a variety of decorative motifs -- flames and flowers are prominent.

Watts's vision remains uncommon. We still seem to prefer warriors and victims for our major memorials, while those who perform "little" acts of valor often fade from public memory once their 15 minutes of fame have passed. But such acts continue to be intensely moving, as we were reminded by our accidental visit to Postman's Park. And no, we didn't make it to the Museum of London that afternoon.

-- Edward Schneider

Postman's Park is next to St. Botolph's church, Aldersgate Street, London. For a copy of an indispensable booklet about the memorial plaques, contact the Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Guildford, Surrey, GU3 1DQ, 011-44-1483-810235,

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