Off the tourist track: Postman's Park

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ok, enough of Gherkins and Shards and the biggest this and the tallest that.  It’s time to take a look at some of the lesser-known but charming sites of London – small places just slightly off the Tourist Trail, but certainly worth some attention.  First up in this new series (well, let’s hope it becomes a series) is Postman’s Park.

P1080005Postman’s Park

Postman’s Park is a small green area just a few minutes walk north of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and is made up of the churchyards of three different churches that occupied or surrounded the grounds as early as 1050.  Those churchyards – Christ Church Greyfriars, St. Leonard Foster Lane and the brilliantly-named St. Botolph’s Aldersgate – were once all burial grounds.  However, by the mid to late 19th century, they, like most of London’s burial grounds, were full-to-bursting.  Apparently it was not uncommon for bodies to simply be stacked on top of previous graves, having the effect of raising ground level in churchyards by several feet compared to surrounding streets. 
“A Royal Commission established in 1842 to investigate the problem concluded that London's burial grounds were so overcrowded that it was impossible to dig a new grave without cutting through an existing one. Sir Edwin Chadwick testified that each year, 20,000 adults and 30,000 children were being buried in less than 218 acres (0.88 km2) of already overcrowded burial grounds; the Commission heard that one cemetery, Spa Fields in Clerkenwell, designed to hold 1,000 bodies, contained 80,000 graves, and that gravediggers throughout London were obliged to shred bodies in order to cram the remains into available grave space.” (Wikipedia)
Following on the findings of the Royal Commission, and considering the general public unease caused by recent cholera epidemics, it was declared that no further burials would be allowed to take place in built-up areas of London.  All burials were subsequently moved to large cemeteries that had opened outside of London, including one which was the largest at the time and was run by the also-brilliantly-named London Necropolis Company and connected to the city by the London Necropolis Railway.  Those Victorians knew a thing or two about naming.

With London churchyards no longer used for burials, it was decided to turn the churchyard of St. Botolph into a public park; the grounds of Christ Church Greyfriars and St. Leonard Foster Lane were incorporated into the park a time later. 

P1080002Some of the gravestones from the former burial grounds, which are displayed in different spots around the park.

But why is it called Postman’s Park? Because the headquarters and sorting office for the General Post Office was built a short distance away in 1829.  By 1895 the building had expanded enough to become the southern boundary of the park, and it became a popular spot for workers in the Post Office to relax.  Hence, “Postman’s Park”.

And why do we care about Postman’s Park, other than the fact that it is a small and pleasant green space in the heart of the city?  Good question.  We care because it is also home to the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice (another one of those Victorian names).  The idea of the memorial was that of painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts, who felt strongly that there should exist some monument to the bravery of ordinary people.  He had been collecting newspaper stories about such people for many years, and during the planning for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee he proposed a monument to them, which he argued for eloquently in (of course) a letter to The Times:
The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should not be lost sight of. It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten.

It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty's reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.

The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.
George Frederic Watts, "Another Jubilee Suggestion", 5 Sep 1887
After having ideas for a “colossal bronze figure” rejected, and finding no support for a grand marble wall in Hyde Park, he eventually succeeded in creating a modest but touching memorial in tiny Postman’s Park.  I say he succeeded, though the lengthy period of planning and fundraising between the approval of the idea and the unveiling of the memorial itself in 1900, meant that Watts, by then 83 years old, was too ill to attend the opening.

The memorial consists of a series of ceramic tile plaques set into the wall in front of one of the buildings that surrounds the park.  The tiles are protected by a simple timber roof which forms a walkway in front of the tiles.

P1070996The memorial

It doesn’t really look like much, but when you get up close enough to read the individual plaques, it’s quite compelling.  Each one is made up of six or eight standard ceramic tiles in roughly the same style, with blue of green lettering and decorative embellishments.  And each plaque tells the the tragic story of some poor soul who was killed while attempting to save others.  The language is brief enough for Twitter, but purely Victorian in tone.

P1070985A few of the plaques

The memorial was unveiled with only 13 tiles, though the wall space would allow for 120 in total.  Various people and committees determined what other names would be added, and different makers were used to create tiles themselves, which accounts for the stylistic differences in tiles of different eras.  The last tiles were placed in 1931, and following the death of Mary Watts, George Watts’ wife and a champion of the memorial following his death, the site was largely forgotten.

That is until 2009, when a 53rd tiles was added to the wall after a 78 year lull.  The plaque was in memory of Leigh Pitt, “a print technician from Surrey, had died on 7 June 2007 rescuing nine-year-old Harley Bagnall-Taylor who was drowning in a canal in Thamesmead.”  Pitt’s work colleagues and fiancée lobbied the Diocese of London, arguing that Pitt would be an appropriate addition to the wall.

P1070979The plaque honouring Leigh Pitt, with a small bouquet apparently laid by his fianceé not long before I arrived.

And that, in a blogshell, is Postman’s Park.  It’s a lovely, quiet spot, especially on a warm Saturday afternoon in the early spring.  If you’ve had your fill of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the crowds and crush and queues that go along with it, take a few minutes to visit Postman’s Park. 

Finally, on a personal note, a few of you have expressed a bit of disappointment that the new blog doesn’t give you as much of an insight into me and my life as Go See Run Eat Drink used to do.  This is mostly because GSRED was about a very different sort of thing – I really couldn’t travel like I did, and write about it, without also getting into how that works and feels.  Now I’m living a mostly “normal” life.  I get up in the morning, I go to work, I come home, I go out for drinks, I get together with friends, I cook, I watch tv, I do laundry, I buy groceries – all the things that I bet most of you do too.  Daily life just doesn’t seem interesting enough to write about, so for now I’m writing about the city and the culture and the odd, different things here that ARE interesting – big things like Tower Bridge, and small things like Marmite.  Along the way you’ll get glimpses into my life, but I don’t think it will ever be the blow-by-blow chronicle that GSRED turned into.

So how am I doing? Not bad.  Work is paying the bills and is in the field I want to be in.  It’s not a job I want to be in forever, but it’s a reasonable stepping stone.  Sometimes I get frustrated thinking that I’m getting stale, or that I could be doing more challenging, professionally fulfilling work back in Canada.  Then I take a step back and think, “Wait a minute.  You’ve been here for less than eight months and for six of those you’ve been working in a full time job, earning enough money to pay the bills, in your chosen field.  And you’re living in LONDON.  Shut up and quit your whining, you’ve got nothing to complain about.”

And my home life is quite happy – being back in the big house in Brixton is simply brilliant and feels like somewhere I’ll be pleased to settle in to for a long time.  I’ve re-arranged my furniture and hung things on the walls, so it’s really homey now. (Though here they’d say “homely”.  Weird.)  I even managed to get those photos from the trip hung, and am quite pleased with how they turned out.

P1070940A peek at my current favourite corner of the world (Spot the Boston Marathon medal! It’s really nice to have some things back…)

Best of all?  If you’re reading this on the day I’ve scheduled it to be posted, then as you’re reading, I should be lounging in the sunshine on the Greek island of Rhodes, enjoying a short holiday from work, London and life.  So I’ll have an ouzo for you all, and maybe I’ll tell you about it when I get back.


Roberto Hamiltoni said...

Nice posting. This is the kind of thing tourists rarely find.

BTW, I am not yearning for the more personal style of GSRED - I think the GSWPL style is just right for this phase. It is a style that could be maintained indefinitely, and is interesting.

Look forward to seeing you in June.


Kathryn said...

I am so glad to see the blown up pic of your trip on the walls of your flat! Wonderful.
As I was reading this post, a distant bell started to ring in my brain...creepy, I know...I believe those plaques at Postman's Park are referenced in Patrick Marber's play "Closer". When I did it we had research about them/photos. Funny to hear of them again. So, now you have a theatre connection to that park too.

Hope you are having a great Greek vacation. I, on the other hand, will be heading to Winnipeg for a trip in a week! Will miss you.

Heather Moore said...

I like this blog! I like hearing about London from this perspective.

Lisa said...

I love your favourite corner of the world...and I love reading your blog. You write well and it's a joy to read. I learn things from you Pam. Cool things! Thanks!

Mitch said...

Such a fabulous post!

I can't believe it's taken me this long to finally comment on the new site!

I really like all the tiles, what a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours with the some heros of every day life.

Really nice digs, looks like a tremendously comfortable place to polish off a nice crossword. After looking at the photo, I had to go back to that original GSRED post about the photos to see which options you went for in the end to print.

Hope you are having a wonderful time in Greece, and let me know if you need to skype a hockey game! ;-)


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