As a writer of Victorian sagas set mainly in the nineteenth century streets of London, I’m always looking for facts and information about those days and the way people lived. I see my characters as everyday hero’s; ordinary people doing extraordinary things that make them worth writing about.
Throughout the ages people have carried out acts of outstanding bravery. We read about them in the newspapers but they are seldom celebrated for long and soon forgotten.
In 1887 a Victorian painter, George Frederick Watts, wrote to The Times newspaper putting forward a suggestion that a National Memorial to ‘the hero’s of everyday life’ be set up as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations.
His Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was unveiled on 30th July 1900.
You won’t find it in many guidebooks, although it’s been there for over a hundred years. When I first came across this Memorial several years ago I was astounded. I’ve lived all my life in London and yet here was a place I knew nothing about.
The Memorial stands in Postman’s Park, an oasis of calm in the middle of one of the world busiest cities and a great place for contemplation and reflection. The park is in the churchyard of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate in London, opposite the building that housed the General Post Office where Anthony Trollope worked while writing his novels. It’s just around the corner from The Museum of London, east of Smithfield, which was itself a place of execution. (The Scottish hero William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered there, but that’s another story.)
Here the postmen of days gone by stopped to eat their lunches in the sunshine. These days you’re more likely to see workmen in hi-viz jackets taking their break or office workers enjoying their lunches on one of the many benches.
Formerly a cemetery, grass, trees and flowers were laid over the graves and the headstones moved to the sides of the park, described by Dickens as being ‘like chairs around the edge of a dance floor.’ Since Dickens’ time we have moved on. In the latest redevelopment many of the gravestones have disappeared and the ones that are left moved to a small corner of the churchyard.
As you enter the park The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice — a patchwork of 54 tiles telling the stories of 62 people who lost their lives while saving others, stands directly ahead of you. Who could fail to be moved by the story of William Fisher, aged 9, who died in Walworth trying to save his little brother from being run over in the street.’ or ‘Henry James Bristow aged 8 who saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock’.
Then there’s Edward Morris, aged 10 drowned while attempting to save his brother after, he himself had been rescued.’ As with the other ‘everyday hero’s’ these boys were from working-class families and therefore ‘hidden from history’ but one wonders about their lives and their stories trying to imagine what it was like. What motivated them? What did they feel? What instinct drove them to save a loved one at the expense of their own lives without thought for themselves?
Every tile tells a story. The earliest recorded is 1863, the latest 2009. All are inspirational.
The ages of people whose heroic deeds are commemorated range from 8 to 61. There’s ‘Elizabeth Boxall aged 17 who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from a runaway horse.’ ‘William Donald aged 19 drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from dangerous entanglement.
Whilst many of the visitors to the park, who’ve come to enjoy their coffee break or lunch in the sun, may be oblivious to the lives of the people commemorated here, these heart-wrenching tales challenge the writer in me to imagine their lives. What motivated them to selfless sacrifice and what about the people left behind, what did they think? Was Mary Rogers, stewardess who gave her life belt away and voluntarily went down with the sinking ship’ a victim of unrequited love? What did her lover think? Was he the person who was saved by her life belt?
And what of Samuel Rabbeth, aged 28, who tried to save a child with Diphtheria at the cost of his own life? What of the family of the child? Or the man who voluntarily descended into a chamber in Kensington to rescue two workmen and was overcome by poisonous gas. Who were the workmen he tried to save? What made him them go into the chamber in the first place if it was filled with poisonous gas? And Thomas Simpson, who died of exhaustion after saving many lives from the breaking ice at Highgate Ponds. Does his ghost still haunt Highgate Ponds saving lives?
There are more questions than answers.
We all struggle in our everyday lives. No one knows what problems or difficulties another may be dealing with but reading about heroic deeds from the past can put our problems into perspective. The existence of the gallery is a tribute to the selflessness, or perhaps foolhardiness, of the human spirit. The writer in me wants to re-write their stories and give them a happy ending or at least find the story behind the story. I never tire of hearing other people’s histories and visiting this tranquil park with its memorial to man’s gallantry is bound to stimulate my imagination. What stories are buried here and what secrets waiting to be discovered. That’s what we writers do, we tell other people’s stories.
Postman’s Park is on the corner of King Edward Street and Little Britain, EC1A 7BT (Nearest tube St Paul’s on the Central Line.)