“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
The Memorial of Heroic Self Sacrifice is one of London’s most moving treasures. Tucked away in the unprepossessing Postman’s Park (near St Paul’s, Barbican; see map) behind St Botolph’s Aldersgate church, it’s a simple but evocative memorial to ordinary people who gave their lives trying to save the lives of others. It is made up of a wall of porcelain plaques sheltered beneath a loggia, each commemorating a different civilian who, in tragic circumstances, died a hero.
The spare language employed – ‘Edward Morris, Aged 10, bathing in the Grand Junction Canal sacrificed his life to save his sinking companion‘ – has a haunting understatement to it, and there’s a chilling contrast between the memorial’s peaceful surroundings and the perilous world of raging house fires and suffocating quicksand that leaps forth from each tile.
Above: Alice Ayers was the person Watts would describe to people to illustrate what kinds of heroes he wanted to commemorate. A century later, it would play an important plot point in play-then-film ‘Closer’.
The idea for such a memorial was originally conceived of by the artist George Frederic Watts in 1866, and over the years he contemplated creating an enormous bronze statue, or a long marble edifice in Hyde Park modelled after the ‘Campo Santo’ in Pisa. Much to his frustration, his ideas were not taken up, and he complained that ‘if I had proposed a race course round Hyde Park, there would have been plenty of sympathisers’.
In the end, the Memorial was created in its current format and location, but from the outset it has suffered from somewhat sporadic care; it was constructed with room for 120 plaques, but ultimately, only 53 were ever installed. After the death of his wife (who had been tasked with developing the memorial), his estate argued that the Memorial’s unfinished state was the correct one. In 2009, however, the first new tablet in 78 years was added, marking the life and death of Leigh Pitt, who drowned saving a young boy from a canal in Thamesmead two years earlier – hopefully a sign that the memorial may recognise heroes of the present and future as well as those of the past.
In among the memorials dedicated to heroes of the military and emergency services, there’s a moving intimacy to one that commemorates the heroism of everyday folk; the thought that you might be suddenly and fatefully called to join the ranks of those already marked in porcelain is hard to avoid, and with it the question as to how much courage we might be able to muster in such circumstances. As the Bishop of London said when he first opened the park in 1900:
“IT WAS a good thing that the multitude who took their recreation in this open space should have some great thoughts on which to fix their hearts, some inscriptions before their eyes recalling to them the things which had been done by those who did their duty bravely, simply and straightforwardly in the place where God had placed them. Such were, indeed, the salt of the earth, and it was by producing characters such as theirs that a nation waxed strong.”
‘The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.’ – G.F Watts, creator of the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. – Guy Parsons