Dear Readers. I have always had a great fondness for Postman’s Park, which is is today the churchyard for St Botolph’s church, Aldersgate. You enter the park past a venerable plane tree, wander over to check if the handkerchief tree is in flower (it isn’t) and pause to admire the tree ferns. But the real interest of Postman’s Park is not so much botanical as human – it’s the site of the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, the idea of George Frederic Watts, opened in 1900. Watts himself died in 1904 with only 4 plaques installed, but his widow Mary Watts took charge of the memorial subsequently. The park is right next door to the original headquarters of the General Post Office (which has a statue of Rowland Hill, the inventor of the Penny Post outside it to this day). The Post Office workers used to take their lunch in the park, hence its popular name of ‘Postman’s Park’.
This is a unique spot, which both celebrates the heroism of ordinary men and women and is simultaneously a memorial of its time. I rather love the colonial overtones of this plaque, for example. ‘A Foreigner’ indeed!
And I think that this is an accident unlikely to happen in present-day Hyde Park (though a runaway electric scooter is a definite possibility)
There are many, many incidents involving fires: sometimes house fires, sometimes terrible events where a dress or other clothing was set alight by a naked flame used for heating or lighting. The advent of electric lighting must have been such a change to people’s way of life.
And tales of child heroism were particularly popular with the Victorians. Did Charles Dickens create this, I wonder, or was he just reflecting the Victorian view of children?
And if it wasn’t fire, it was water. People were falling through the ice, drowning in lakes, drowning in canals.
But people still are drowning, and the most recent plaque, installed in 2009 after a gap of 78 years, commemorates Leigh Pitt, who rescued a nine-year-old child from the lake at Thamesmead but drowned himself. The Diocese of London have said that they’ll now consider other heroic acts for inclusion on the memorial, which sounds like a good thing to me – there’s plenty of space, and heroism is still alive and well. It’s easy to be amused by the tone of some of the plaques, but each of these people did an extraordinary thing, ignoring their own safety in order to save someone else. Aren’t these acts the very best of us? It makes me think of all the people who have risked their own safety during the pandemic, of the doctors and nurses and care staff going to work with inadequate PPE, knowing that if they caught Covid they stood a good chance of being sick or even dying. It’s very difficult to leave Postman’s Park in anything but a contemplative mood.