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Postman’s Park

09/15/2013

Postman's Park 6

“So brave” screamed the front page of London’s Evening Standard following the recent death of sky diver Mark Sutton who crashed into a mountain ridge in the Swiss Alps after jumping from a helicopter at ten thousand feet. He was the stuntman who famously parachuted into the Olympic stadium dressed as James Bond during the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympic Games.

This was undoubtedly a tragic loss of life, Mark was only forty two years old, but did it merit being described as an act of bravery? Having jumped from a plane at twelve thousand feet, albeit strapped to someone who does this sort of thing for fun, I’m reluctant to describe it as “brave”, particularly as I’m a bit of a wuss. Anyone who goes sky diving on a regular basis probably keeps coming back for more for the adrenaline rush of those first few seconds after jumping when you’re hurtling to the ground, spiralling out of control, face contorted by the pressure of air rushing towards you, before eventually feeling the tug of the parachute and regaining an upright position. I imagine it can be addictive but this doesn’t necessarily mean that sky divers are any braver than the rest of us.

Postman’s Park in the centre of London reminds us that acts of bravery and heroism often go unheralded. It’s easy to walk past the park without even knowing it’s there, tucked away as it is off St Martin’s Le Grand between St Paul’s cathedral and the Barbican. I’m yet to see a postman in there and it’s not really a park in the conventional sense, more a small green lung in the City, less than an acre in size and fringed by tall buildings. It gets its name from being on the site of the former headquarters of the General Post Office and is a wonderful spot for getting away from the hustle and bustle of central London for a quiet few minutes.

Postman's Park 7

The centrepiece of the park is the G.F. Watts’ Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice dedicated to acts of heroism by ordinary Londoners who died trying to save the lives of others. It consists of a series of hand painted and glazed ceramic tiles that tell tales of extraordinary bravery. Sometimes it’s family, friends or work colleagues that people are trying to save and other times it’s complete strangers. Take this one for instance;

“John Cranmer, Cambridge. Aged 23. A clerk in the London County Council who was drowned near Ostend whilst saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner. August 8, 1901”

Or this one from less than a month later;

“Soloman Galaman. Aged 11. Died of injuries after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street. September 6,1901”

There are about seventy of these tiled tributes in total, mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They’re beautifully understated and quietly moving and a reminder of times when motorised transport was new, river journeys were often hazardous and health and safety in the workplace was less of a concern.

Postman’s Park opened in 1880 and has been home to the Watts’ memorial since 1900. The memorial was the idea of George Frederic Watts, a painter and sculptor, who believed in using art as a force for social change and wanted a national monument dedicated to the bravery of ordinary people. The memorial was originally meant to be in Hyde Park but eventually found a home a few miles to the east in Postman’s Park.

Postman's Park 8

The capital is full of memorials to military leaders, royalty and politicians. In a discombobulated world where care workers looking after the frail and elderly are paid a pittance and anyone returning from fighting overseas is automatically labelled as a hero, it’s wonderful to discover something, however small, that celebrates the courage of ordinary people. Not people who were simply doing their job or pursuing an adrenaline-rushed hobby but people who, on the spur of the moment, rushed to help others in a moment of danger but paid the ultimate price. So brave.

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From → London

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