A special shout to Sunshine. You’ve probably been to Postman’s Park in your travels…
Before I arrived in London, a local friend supplied me with a list of must-sees: Buckingham Palace, Harrods, St. Paul’s Cathedral. I diligently check off items, impressed, but touristy. The last sight on the list is noted with two stars – Postman’s Park. The trouble is, I can’t find it.
I study my map scanning street by street, as if playing a word-find jumble, without luck. The persistent drizzle is wearing down my patience, so I stop a cabbie for directions. He points to a green speck on my map only a few blocks away. Then he puts his finger to his lips and drives off, and I sense that I’m about to be let in on a special secret.
The park is empty, save for a woman smoking a cigarette, a black bird with a bright orange beak and me. Here, next to the noisy, crowded streets of downtown London, I finally feel I can get acquainted with the city Shakespeare called “this other Eden.” Postman’s Park, tucked between looming office buildings and steps from the hoards of tourists at St. Paul’s is as humble as a park can get – no life-size bronze statues, no Sound of Music hills, no majestic elms. What it has is this: tidy lawns, blooming perennials, a few koi in a small fountain and a series of plaques.
The plaques make this rather unremarkable park remarkable. Behind the bench where the woman and I are sitting, ceramic tiles commemorate ordinary people who died trying to save the lives of others.
Edmund Emery from Chelsea leaped from a Thames steamboat to rescue a child and drowned on July 31, 1874.
Solomon Galaman aged 11 died of his injuries September 6, 1901, after saving his little brother from being run over in a commercial street.
My first impression is to fill in the blanks in my mind. I see a cobblestone road filled with horse-drawn carriages traveling in all directions and the Galaman boy darting after a ball or something he’s lost. Solomon pushes his brother out of the way just as a carriage overtakes him. But then I feel a little cheated because I don’t really know if that was how events transpired. There isn’t enough information. I want to know more, like how Solomon’s mother handled the news and if Mrs. Emery was proud of her husband’s bravery. Most of all, I want to know why. Why did Robert Wright of Croydon enter a burning house on April 30, 1893, to save a woman even though he knew there was petroleum stored in the cellar? Did he recognize the woman or did he just hear cries for help and decide to act? But I will never get more than the paltry details written here.
These tiles were the brainchild of painter and sculptor George F. Watts, a socially-conscious Victorian rebel of sorts who disliked the upper classes. During his own time, he was very successful, being called “the English Michelangelo.” In 1887, the queen’s jubilee year, Watts wrote to The Times requesting that a memorial be built to record examples of everyday heroism and self-sacrifice. Nothing came of the letter so he decided to go it alone. He paid for the first 13 plaques to be built on this wall in the former churchyard of St. Botolph’s, still located at the west end of the park. After Watts’s death in 1904, his widow continued working to bring the total to 53. The most recent date I could find was 1927.
The black bird flies away, maybe to find someone willing to share his lunch. Then the woman stubs out her cigarette and leaves too, and I am alone. Her heels clicking on the stone path get fainter and fainter. I have that elusive feeling of being sealed and protected from the outside world – the sounds of the double-decker buses and crowds of tourists around the corner cannot permeate the gates of the park. It’s not hard to imagine Mark Tomlinson and Ellen Donovan and Herbert Maconoghu, each dead about 125 years, sitting along side of me. Theirs is an invisible weightiness, a presence here in Postman’s Park which forces me to wonder if I would come to the aid of another, no questions asked. Would I have what it takes to run into a burning building to save three children like Alice Ayers did? Could I jump into a river for a boy entangled in weeds like William Donald? Without the pressure of my life on the line, it’s easy to say yes, I would do the right thing. But I don’t know for sure.
A heavy-set man plops down on the bench. He wears the boots of a construction worker and carries a paper sack. The black bird circles around like he’s waiting to see what’s for lunch before he decides to land.
“This is a very nice park,” I say. “Do you come here often for lunch?”
He swallows his bite. “Only come because my job is here, but we’ll move on soon.” Across Aldersgate Street, adjacent to the park, a tall building is either going up or being renovated. It’s hard to tell.
I try to dig up some polite conversation, but only draw a blank, not being great with the small talk, so we stare out from the loggia at the bird who is staring back.
“Know why this is called Postman’s Park?” the man asks. I shake my head no. “The General Post Office used to be over there,” he waves his hand in the general direction, “and the postmen would eat their lunches here.” Then he launches into an interesting, if subjective, history class about the ancient Roman burial ground just beneath our feet and the divine experience John Wesley had across the street that led him to found the Methodist church. If this is true (and as it turns out, it is) perhaps Watts knew this patch of land was perfect to commemorate examples of ordinary citizens’ uncommon valor.
A lukewarm review of a Watts painting in 1892 read, “But somehow it just fails to be either quite real or quite symbolical…” He eventually accomplished both, not in a world-class museum, but in a series of uncomplicated ceramic tiles. Rather than erecting an engraved marble slab where one name blends into the next, each person’s heroic deed is here to be remembered for all time. It is a gift of eternal validation for men and women who embodied the best each of us has to offer.