It is sad and rather strange to think that, up until the late Victorian age, ordinary working people were never formally recognised if they gave their lives to save others. It was the aristocracy or officers in the armed forces who were commended for acts of heroic self-sacrifice. It is also quite unusual for an artist to create a commemorative wall of glazed tiles to recognise these everyday acts of heroism. George Frederick Watts, a recognised artist of the time, devised the idea of individual tiles to immortalise the bravery of ordinary men and women for future generations to see. Each tile was hand painted using their name and a brief description of their sad sacrifice.
Everything about this memorial is surprising and unexpected. For one thing, the memorial is not housed in an art gallery or museum, it is found in a little park close to St Paul’s. It is almost unknown and unseen by the masses who tread the usual tourist route. The tiles are, uniquely, housed in a loggia or a lean-to open to the elements and also to those who are lucky enough to visit the park.
The scheme was originally meant to form part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations but it was never approved. Instead, the vicar of St Botolphs, Aldersgate commissioned the art installation in order to raise the profile of the church and the park that had been created out of the old churchyard. In 1900 the memorial in Postman's Park was unveiled to the public and has been unfinished ever since.
Many of London’s churchyards had been closed due to overcrowding and this one is no exception. You may come to appreciate this as you step up from St Martin’s Le Grand and see headstones stacked up against a wall and around the perimeter. But why was it called Postman’s Park? The park is a short distance away from the former HQ of the General Post Office and apparently enjoyed by many of its employees over the years.
The loggia contains about 50 tiles dedicated to all manner of people both young and old, local and foreign including a young man who had run back into a burning house to save a friend and a boy who had jumped into a river to save his younger brother. As you look along the many moving and inspiring inscriptions, stop a while at the plaque dedicated to Alice Ayres. Alice was a nursemaid who rescued three of her nieces from a burning house before falling out of the window to her death. If you have ever seen the play or film, Closer by Patrick Marber, you may already be aware of this name. The 2004 film was shot in and around Postman’s Park as the young lead, played by Natalie Portman, used Alice’s name instead of her own to purposefully deceive Dan, played Jude Law.
Patrick Marber captures the melancholy atmosphere perfectly in both the play and the movie. It is certainly an appropriate place for gentle reflection and contemplation; a tranquil park surrounded by London’s hustle and bustle.
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.