Postman's Park, London

Postman's Park

A quiet space in the City of London is remarkable, but Postman’s Park is unique. Round the corner from St Paul's Cathedral where the streets are full of city gents bursting with self-importance, it contains the Watts Memorial where people who were ordinary, yet extraordinary are remembered in a very beautiful way.

In one corner of the park, easily overlooked under a canopy, there are over 50 plaques, with beautiful lettering hand-painted onto Royal Doulton tiles. Each one details the untimely end of a heroic soul who died trying to save another life. Except they put it much more poetically than that. Although they're short, they're beautifully written with flashes of detail that paint vivid pictures of these tragic gothic scenes. Take David Selves, aged 12 of Woolwich who "supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms", or William Donald of Bayswater who "drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed". Fans of Edward Gorey or Lemony Snicket get yourself down here.

At first they seem funny - a bit over the top. But by the end of the first panel I was hooked. What next? What fresh disaster? After 30 or so plaques it's almost heartbreaking. Every tile has something, a name or a place or a word that places it firmly in the past. There are occupations that don't exist anymore and situations no one would ever find themselves in, peopled by a cast of Fredericks, Herberts and Alices. Even the causes of death are wonderfully archaic - descending a high-tension chamber, trampled by a runaway horse; or spectacularly bizarre like Sarah Smith, pantomime artiste who "died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion".

Postman's Park

The memorial was created by G.F. (George Frederic) Watts, a painter and social radical. In 1887 he had an idea to commemorate “heroic men and women” for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year. No one supported the idea so he did it himself, with his wife Mary continuing to add tiles after his death in 1904.

If one of the names, Alice Ayres "daughter of a bricklayer's labourer who by intrepid conduct saved 3 children from a burning house in Union Street Borough at the cost of her own young life" sounds familiar it’s because she is immortalised twice, once here and once in the film Closer. Natalie Portman's character gets her pseudonym here and the park features as a setting in the film. Remarkably, despite all this exposure it remains a wonderful well-kept secret.

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Postman's Park is in the churchyards of St Leonards, Foster Lane, St Botolph, Aldersgate and the graveyard of Christchurch, Newgate Street. It is in between Little Britain, Angel Street and King Edward St. There are gates on each side, both signposted. It's a short walk from St Paul's Cathedral. The nearest tube is St Paul's.

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I found this subject and the stories summarised in it deeply moving and poignant. It reminds me of a heartbreaking tragedy recently here in Hong Kong, where a young architecture student died while trying to prevent the suicide of his friend. They were both killed when they fell from the ledge of an apartment tower. Then again, even more recently two firefighters here died saving people trapped in a fire (they shared their oxygen with the people, and didn't have enough for themselves). Rest in peace brave spirits of all who've died to save others.

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