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History lives in everything we see or touch; it surrounds every street and every building. Even the most recently built houses have stories behind them. One can only imagine the kind of stories huge, old cities such as London could reveal. There could be billions of tales – some joyous, some sad, and some utterly terrifying. Many of them are long forgotten, but there are certain ones that are kept alive by the caring people impartial to the emotions related to them and the meanings they stand for. In order to preserve the memories of outstanding events and people, there exist memorials created specifically for the purpose of passing these stories, along with the wisdom they carry, to future generations.
The focus of this paper is on one such memorial, situated in London and known as Postman’s Park. This beautiful location is a popular site that attracts visitors from all around the world. The memorial has a deep and sentimental value because it is dedicated to the commemoration of the self-sacrificial deeds of otherwise unremarkable people. Created during the Victorian era, the memorial is still kept in excellent condition for enthusiastic visitors to appreciate. However, it is worth noting that, just like many parts of London, the area that is now occupied by Postman’s Park has many layers of history. They will be explored in this paper as a set of unique stories which have collectively made the interest in the site what it is today. In other words, even though the paper is dedicated to the memorial, its meaning and background will be presented in the context of the events that took place prior to its establishment, as well as afterwards.
Postman’s Park Today
Discussing the meaning of the memorial in Postman’s Park, Mike Dash mentions that it is dedicated to the commemoration of the heroic deeds of many different people (par. 1). However, the author emphasizes that memorials honoring national heroes are quite common and can be found in most cultures and states. According to Dash, the major peculiarity of the memorial in Postman’s Park is the fact that it focuses on the self-sacrificial actions of unremarkable individuals. Dash notes that monuments of this type are usually quite neglected compared to those honoring more famous or presently adored heroes; in addition, the number of the latter exceeds that of the former by many hundreds (par. 2). As an example, the author mentions the statue of Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan that was as tall as 250 feet, plated with gold, and set on a rotating platform so that the hero would face the sun at any time of the day (Dash par. 1).
Contrasted with better-known and more costly memorials, the one in Postman’s Park seems rather modest. It presents a long wall covered in ceramic tiles, each of which contains a brief note commemorating someone’s self-sacrificial act that saved the life of another person. As pointed out by John Price, the memorial was created and developed by George Frederic Watts, an artist who lived during the Victorian era (n.p.). As a result, the site is recognized as the Watt Memorial. It contains a total of 54 ceramic tiles or tablets; most of them were installed during the lifetime of Watts and his wife. The tablets are placed on a wall that is set under a roof protecting the memorial from the rain and snow. The overall length of the memorial is about 50 feet. Each tile contains a record starting with the name of an individual and the details of their act of self-sacrifice. For example, the earliest one says: “Sarah Smith, pantomime artiste at Prince’s Theatre. Died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her flammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion” (Ross par. 1). The overall number of people featured in the tablets is 62; it includes 45 men, 9 women, and 8 children (Price n.p.).
Only a few of the acts of life-risking courage mentioned on the tiles of the Watts Memorial were performed by professionals whose occupations involved saving other people – firefighters and police officers. The vast majority of brave deeds were carried out by average individuals; representatives of the English working class. Moreover, the nature of the situations in which this life-risking bravery occurred is very demonstrative of the conditions in which the simple laborers of the Victorian era had to function day after day. To be more precise, many of the dangerous accidents mentioned in the tiles happened due to the breach of fire safety (Price n.p.). The tragic accidents of this kind were quite common at the time because of the popularity of oil lamps that could be extremely dangerous and present a fire hazard when mishandled or left unattended. In addition, many of the situations occurred in the workplace, showing the dangerous nature of the everyday jobs of the working class individuals during the Victorian era.
The park where the memorial is situated is located right in the middle of the business center of London and is often filled with tourists and business people eating food during meal breaks. It is a pleasant and harmonious place with a beautiful green landscape and a small vintage fountain stocked with carp.
Postman’s Park’s History
The park itself has received its unusual name due to its location near what used to be the General Post Office in the 1880s; the park was created around that time and became a space popular among the employees of the Post Office (Blair par. 2). The shape of the park is uneven, being of various widths due to the peculiarities of the historical formation of the area that is currently occupied by the park. Practically, it was composed of several different pieces of land that initially belonged to churches – the churchyards of St Botolph’s, Aldersgate and St Leonard’s, Foster Lane (Blair par. 2). One more part of the grounds used to be a graveyard of the Christchurch.
In fact, the territory that is currently known as Postman’s Park used to represent one of the most significant public health issues in Victorian London – the insufficiency of burial grounds (“The Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice” par. 2). Practically, the city center of London – always known for its high density of population – was also quite unsanitary and thus suffered from multiple epidemics that often left many victims and aggravated the city’s need for burial grounds since the bodies were often stacked on top of one another or exhumed after a while in order to be disposed of to free the space for new graves (“The Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice” par. 2).
The Victorian era turned out to be the breaking point in the city planning approaches in London that allowed a variety of new open spaces to be used for the expansion of the sites and public grounds. This was the case because at the time, there existed a belief that the epidemics occurred due to the overcrowding of the city areas causing the dirty air also referred to as “miasma”; the Victorians viewed parks as a solution to this issue adding more fresh air to the cities (“The Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice” par 1). However, the past of Postman’s Park and its former function as a burial ground can be connected to its modern function – the commemoration of the heroic deaths of brave individuals. In a way, the park seems to be compensating for all the mistreated dead by honoring the deaths of people who were driven by the noble desire to save someone else’s life.
George Frederic Watts
The idea to create the memorial dedicated to brave self-sacrifice was first expressed by Watts in 1887; in this way, he offered to mark the First Jubilee of Queen Victoria (In Commemoration of Heroic Self-Sacrifice 9). According to Watts’ perspective, a memorial of this type was an infinitely honorable way of enriching the entire culture and the nation with a noble memory (In Commemoration of Heroic Self-Sacrifice 9).
Discussing the meaning of the memorial, it is important to mention the person behind it. George Frederic Watts is recognized as one of the most outstanding artists of the Victorian era in Britain. He has created several well-known works of art, many of which are currently exhibited at the Tate Museum, London. Many of them explore the subject of death; the titles of the paintings often speak for their contents – Love and Death, Found Drowned, The Irish Famine, Death Crowning Innocence. Of course, the artist had a multitude of other paintings that did not depict death; however, it looks like Watts had a fascination for this topic and thus did not take the death of people around him lightly and wanted to commemorate the noble reasons for the deaths of his contemporary heroes among the common people.
Watts initiated and maintained a thorough and prolonged research in newspaper archives and articles in order to find as many as possible of the records of potential heroic deeds committed by his compatriots; the researchers explored many files at the British Museum and located the records of self-sacrificial bravery that had been forgotten. In that way, by means of establishing the Postman’s Park memorial, the artist revived the heroism of the individuals who gave their lives while attempting to save someone else. After the death of George Frederic Watts, his wife continued his mission and kept adding new records to the wall of the memorial.
Modern View of the Memorial
Today, modern London society lives in a world where the images of the individual acts of heroism are recorded, turning those who carried them out into contemporary idols. Six years ago, in his article in The Guardian, Christopher Reid wrote that it felt impossible for him to identify any specific individual as his hero (par. 2). However, in the modern world, there exists a wide range of fictional characters coming from literature, comic books, and films who are immediately associated with the word “hero”. These characters are the first ones likely to be named as “heros” by contemporary society. At the same time, it can be extremely challenging to name a real individual who is considered to be a hero. The Watts Memorial serves as a reminder that seemingly unremarkable heroes live among us; however, in most cases, their acts of bravery are quickly forgotten or even unnoticed while everyone remains captivated by fictional heroes.
Also, the existence of the memorial raises a philosophic issue of the nature of self-sacrifice that clashes with the most basic instinct of a human as a living being – that of staying alive. Cases of people surviving in extreme conditions, or recovering from extensive injuries and life-threatening diseases, or fighting for their lives in incredibly hostile environments, are commonly reported in the news and admired in the media and films. They are also explained by the powerful will to live innate in all living creatures. At the same time, the entire concept of self-sacrifice seems to be going against what is described as the selfish human nature (Baumeister and Bushman 61). It is possible that Watts, a known explorer of the subject of death, focused specifically on the death by self-sacrifice due to its unconventional nature.
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To sum up, Postman’s Park is situated in the center of London and presents one of the rare, green open spaces in this area overcrowded with tall, glass buildings. Currently, the park serves as a quiet and pleasant place for business people to socialize and eat. Tourists are attracted to the park due to the Watts Memorial of Self-Sacrifice – a long wall of tiles commemorating the heroic acts of bravery performed by (often) working class people who gave their lives while attempting to save someone else. The site has a lengthy history and has been used to fulfill many different functions, such as that of a burial ground, a churchyard, an open space of the General Post Office, to name a few. Today, the park is associated with the Watts Memorial that preserves the memories of the heroic deeds that could have been easily forgotten otherwise.
Baumeister, Roy F. and Brad J. Bushman. Social Psychology and Human Nature, Brief. Cengage Learning, 2013.
Blair, Anna. “Postman’s Park: Commemorating Heroic Acts of Self-Sacrifice in London’s Financial Centre.” Untrapped Cities, Web.
Dash, Mike. “On Heroic Self-Sacrifice: a London Park Devoted to Those Most Worth Remembering.” Smithsonian, Web.
In Commemoration of Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Headley Brothers, 1908.
Price, John. Heroes of Postman’s Park: Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Victorian London. The History Press, 2015.
Reid, Christopher. “Review: My Heroes in Postman’s Park.” The Guardian. 2010, p. 5.
Ross, David. “Postman’s Park.” Britain Express, Web.
“The Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice.” Flickering Lamps, 2011, Web.