Where do ordinary heroes go?

DAVID SELVES was just 12 years old. But he dived into the water, to support “his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.” This was in 1886. Two years earlier, Samuel Rabbeth, a 28-year-old doctor, had desperately tried to save a four-year-old suffering from diphtheria, clearing an obstruction in the child’s throat by putting his mouth to the tracheotomy tube. But he contracted the infection and died. And so did the child.

Ordinarily, they would have been forgotten by now. After all, they were neither rich nor powerful.

However, their courage is as arresting today as it must have been then, more than a century ago. Because, in a busy corner of London, there’s an old, hushed park where extraordinary deeds of courage are remembered, along with their ordinary heroes.

Almost hidden

Wedged between office blocks, this park is in the heart of London’s frenetic Barbican, bustling with bankers in expensive suits and secretaries clipping past in gleaming designer boots. Yet, you’ll be lucky to find someone who can give you directions to it. The frantically posing tourists at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, barely a minute away, hardly ever wander here, and Londoners seem to only stop by for a quick absent-minded cigarette or sandwich. But if anyone stops to listen, the powerful stories it tells are compelling enough to leave a lasting impact. Postman’s Park is one of London’s most surprising secrets. It also holds some of the city’s most heart-warming stories.

In the evening, the park is a pool of darkness, locked and bolted. The quaintly named “Guild & Ward Church of St. Botolph-Without-Aldersgate” next door, on the other hand, radiates warmth, with its burnishing lights and Scottish preacher’s lilting sermon. Although the park, set between King Edward Street and Little Britain, seems to be a part of the church (which stands at spot where “a church building has stood for nearly one thousand years” according to a plaque), a notice at the entrance proclaims that it was created with land from the churchyard of Saint Leonards, Foster Lane, St. Botolphs, Aldersgate and the graveyard of Christchurch, Newgate Street. Today it is maintained by the Corporation of London, Open Spaces Department. Once a popular lunchtime destination for workers from the old General Post Office, postman’s park, shaped so irregularly it looks like its been hastily squeezed in, was opened in 1880, opposite an old post office. But it went on to become much more than just a backdrop to hastily-eaten sandwiches and stately trees, thanks to George Frederic Watts, a talented painter and fiery philanthropist.

A different tribute

In 1887, Watts wrote to the Times, suggesting a memorial for ordinary heroes. After all, the rich and powerful are always remembered, whether they’re army generals, film stars or millionaires; celebrated for winning wars, teary lines or making enough money to raise grandiose buildings and glitzy marble plaques. Watts — the son of a London piano maker, who reportedly despised the very-rich and refused a baronetcy twice — campaigned for a memorial to remember regular people, who displayed startlingly heroic acts of courage, and died in the process.

His letter suggested that a memorial of this sort would be a marvellous way to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Year. But no one paid him any attention. Fortunately, for the few people who stumble upon this moving treasure and the selflessly heroic men, women and children who will be remembered for as long as it stands, when Watts realised that neither the government nor the town planners were really interested in raising marble to ordinary lives, he just went ahead and funded it himself, paying for the first 13 plaques. His widow then added 34 after he died in 1904. Five more were added almost three decades later.

Today, you can wander past the park’s mysterious tombstones draped in so many layers of damp moss that only occasional words shine though, an “alderman” here and “1800” there — it was evidently a graveyard at some point in it’s history. But huddled together in groups of seven at discreet corners, the tombs are clearly not the main show here. Neither are the fountains, which burble politely on the pathway. Or the lush patches of purple flowers, surrounded by carpets of bright yellow maple leaves.

It’s the 50-foot gallery stretching across the end of the park, neatly plastered with plaques (most created by Royal Doulton), crowned by a damp, faded inscription, “In commemoration of heroic self-sacrifice”.

Power in simplicity

The brief descriptions on each tablet are plain and unemotional. But that simplicity is their power. For, these are stories that need no histrionics, or ornate embellishment to move any random reader that happens to wander past.

There is the plaque to John Cranmer, a clerk in the London County Council who drowned when he was 23 years old “while saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner” in 1901. And eight-year-old Henry James Bristow who died in 1890, when he “saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock”.

But perhaps the most vivid is the heart-rending remembrance to Solomon Galman, an 11-year-old who “died of injuries after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street”. At the bottom are his last words. “Mother, I saved him but could not save myself.”



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April 2009
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