Visit London's Little-known Postman's Park Memorial to Heroic Self-sacrifice

By: Muriel Vega  | 
memorial to self sacrifice
The memorial plaque for little Henry James Bristow, part of the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, in Postman's Park, London. tpholland/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

London is a green city, with more than 3,000 parks, covering 18 percent of its total area. One of those parks, just north of St. Paul's Cathedral, is a little more unique than most. The Postman's Park Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, also known as the Watts Memorial, is a small garden that pays homage to ordinary people who heroically gave their lives to save someone else.

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The Evolution of the Memorial

Initially, the park was just a small cemetery off St. Botolph's Church. Due to an overcrowding of headstones, the graves were cleared to make room for a small garden and park. The park's name came from the postmen of the nearby General Post Office headquarters who hung out at the park during their lunchtime.

Artist George Frederic Watts decided to make a memorial in the park to those that had lost their lives heroically. He wrote a letter to The Times proposing the memorial in September 1887. He wanted to bring attention to the daily lives of London's working class while honoring Queen Victoria's then-upcoming Golden Jubilee.

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In his proposal letter, he used the story of Alice Ayres, a servant girl who saved her three nieces from a fire on Union Street in 1885, as an example of the type of self-sacrificial acts that he hoped to highlight and memorialize. Nearly 10 years after his original proposal, Watts received a section of Postman's Park for his memorial.

memorial to self sacrifice
The memorial to self sacrifice was conceived and begun by artist G.F. Watts, though he became ill and died before being able to shepherd it to completion.
Mike Finn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Half the Plaques Remain Blank

At the unveiling in 1900, the park contained only four plaques that had been completed and installed. Watts was gravely ill, so he was unable to attend the unveiling. After Watts personally chose and funded the first few plaques, a committee was formed at St. Botolph's Church to select the next ones. Submissions required the person to be from London, and the act of self-sacrifice must've happened during the reign of Queen Victoria.

The untimely death of Watts and the closing of ceramicist William De Morgan's pottery created several delays in the installation of plaques, though new ones were added every few years. Out of 120 possible plaques, to this day, only 54 have been installed.

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memorial to self sacrifice
Postman's Park is a small park just off St. Botolph's Church, Aldersgate, in London.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By SA 4.0)

The plaques memorialize people ranging from those who saved victims of shipwrecks, train fires and drownings, to a girl who saved her sister from a burning house. One reads, "Soloman Galaman, aged 11, died of injuries September 6 1901, after saving his little brother from being run over on Commercial Street. Mother I saved him, but I could not save myself."

The last one installed, 78 years after the first plaque went in, was in 2009, for printworker Leigh Pitt, who jumped in the Thamesmead Canal to save a boy from drowning and died during the attempt.

An informational plaque at the park reads, "Watts believed that these 'everyday' heroes provided models of exemplary behavior and character. The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession: the deeds of its people are."

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