History Hikes: A People's Westminster Abbey | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

History Hikes: A People’s Westminster Abbey

Entrance to Postman's ParkSenior Historian Chris Anderson has spent a lot of time walking around London looking for sites that are related to the Blitz, Special Operations Executive or just historically interesting. During many of his walks he stops at Postman’s Park, one of London’s most tranquil spaces containing one of its most moving memorials. As Chris says, “For someone who has spent a good deal of his professional life studying the heroic acts of brave men and women in wartime, it is good to be reminded that heroism comes in all shapes and sizes.” Read on to learn more about “A People’s Westminster Abbey” in his latest History Hikes dispatch.

A People’s Westminster Abbey

By Chris Anderson, Senior Historian

Tucked between St. Botolph’s Aldersgate and the old General Post Office building in the heart of the city, you will find a small wrought iron gate that leads into a secluded green space. If you’re a tourist walking around, chances are you will miss it if you are not careful. This would be a pity. Through the gate you will find Postman’s Park, which I believe is one of London’s most tranquil spaces containing one of its most moving memorials.

As you first enter, you could be forgiven for thinking there is not much to be seen. The steps are narrow, and on either side, you are boxed in; the walls of St. Botolph’s to your right and the massive General Post Office Building to your left. Once you reach the top of the stairs you see a space that spreads out higgledy piggledy before you. There is no symmetry, instead the park squeezes itself between the buildings that surround it. The reason for its haphazard shape rests in its creation.

Built just outside the Aldersgate-one of London’s medieval gates-St. Botolph’s has been a church since at least the 13th Century. Parishioners worshiped there for centuries as the city grew around them; when they passed away, they were buried in the churchyard. Over time, space for further burials became more and more difficult to find and, eventually, bodies were stacked one atop the other. By the 19th Century, overcrowding had become a serious problem and the surface of the churchyard had risen some six feet above street level.

Other churches throughout the city faced a similar problem. The proper disposal of the city’s dead was increasingly becoming a serious issue. Following cholera outbreaks in 1831 and 1848, Parliament decided to do something. In 1851 it passed the first of what would be termed the “Burials Acts.” Among other things, the acts spelled out that in future, no further burials could take place within London and instead had to be taken to one of seven large cemeteries outside the city.  

The question then was what to do with the old burial grounds. In 1858 St. Botolph’s made the decision to create a public park where increasingly urbanized Londoners could enjoy difficult to find green space. It was no simple task, however, and it was not until 1880 that the park opened. Quickly, however, St. Botolph’s garden became popular with local office workers-in particular the workers at the General Post Office, London’s largest postal facility.

In 1887 the churchyards of Christ Church Grey Friars and St. Leonard’s Foster Lane were added to the park and finally, in 1900, the City Parochial Foundation (CPF) began negotiations to sell the last small sliver of land to St. Botolph’s. Sandwiched between King Edward and Aldersgate streets, the park was by then known locally as, “the postman’s park.”

As negotiations with the CPF were underway, the rector of St. Botolph’s, Henry Gamble, was approached by a good friend of the artist George Friedrich Watts. Would Gamble, the painter and sculptor’s friend wanted to know, like a memorial by one of the leading artists of the day to grace his new park? Seeing this as an opportunity to the promote the park as well as raise the additional funds required to secure the land from the CPF, Gamble quickly agreed.

Born in poverty to a piano maker in 1817, by the turn of the century Watts had become one of Britain’s most renowned artists. His work hung in the Houses of Parliament and the National Portrait Gallery. He was also a favorite of Queen Victoria. Despite his professional success, Watts never forgot his humble upbringing. He believed that art could be used to improve the life of ordinary people and he was deeply involved in efforts to relieve the suffering of London’s urban poor.

One area of particular interest to Watts were the heroic acts of self-sacrifice performed everyday by ordinary men, women and children going about their lives. He believed that those who performed such acts should be remembered not only because of their deeds, but also because they provided examples of how people should live moral and decent lives in the service of others.  

Alice AyresHe began collecting stories of such acts. One, which inspired him was that of Alice Ayers, a 26-year-old housemaid who was working in Southwark. On April 26, 1885, the shop where Ayers worked caught on fire. Trapped in the house with her employers and their children, Ayers was able to get a feather mattress out a window of the burning building and onto the street below. As the fire spread, she got three of the children out to safety by tossing them onto the mattress. She was mortally injured when she tried to leap from the burning building herself.  

In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, the story of Ayers selfless bravery received a lot of attention but, as time passed after her death, her heroism was soon forgotten. This troubled Watts, and he would refer to Ayers’ story as one of the inspirations for what he hoped would become a monumental public art project. As part of the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, he had written “Another Jubilee Suggestion,” to the London Times:

The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should not be lost sight of. It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten.

It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty’s reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.

The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.

Commemoration of Heroic Self Sacrifice loggiaWhat Watts proposed was a monument in Hyde Park that would record the names and deeds of common men and women who had accomplished extraordinary deeds of selflessness and heroism and who, because of their common origins, would most likely be forgotten with the passage of time. Unfortunately, in a city already groaning under the weight of monuments to kings and queens, generals and statesmen, the great and the good, Watts’ suggestion of a monument dedicated to the bravery of ordinary people did not get very far. In a moment of despair, the artist quipped, “if I had proposed a race-course round Hyde Park, there would have been plenty of sympathisers.”

The idea of a memorial languished until friends of the artist saw an opportunity in the expanding park at St. Botolph’s. Although it would be more modest than what he had envisioned for Hyde Park, Watts was asked by Gamble if he would support placing his monument at Postman’s Park. The artist agreed, paying for the construction himself. When it was announced that a famous artist, was involved in the project, the Pall Mall Gazette commented that Watts was building, “A people’s Westminster Abbey.”

The final memorial, designed by Architect Ernest George, featured a 50-foot-long loggia with benches. Along the wall there was space for 120 memorial plaques. Each would record the name of at least one individual who had saved a life at the cost of their own. The Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice was finally dedicated on July 30, 1900. Initially there were four names on the wall. Each had been selected by Watts personally. Among the first four were “Thomas Griffin, April 12, 1899, fitters’ labourer. In a boiler explosion at a Battersea sugar refinery was fatally scalded when returning to search for his mate.” And Mary Rogers, March 30, 1899, Stewardess of Stella. Self-sacrificed by giving up her life belt and going down in the sinking ship.”

Watts picked each of the names to be selected for the wall until his death in 1904, when the individuals to be memorialized were picked by Watts’ widow Mary. The youngest individual honoured was Henry Bristow, age 8; the oldest Daniel Pemberton age 61.

Leigh Pitt plaqueUnfortunately, Mary Watts eventually lost interest in the project. In 1931, after 61 names had been memorialized on 53 tablets, the project stopped. No more names went up onto the wall until 2007, when a new plaque was dedicated to “Leigh Pitt, June 7, 2007, Reprographic Operator. Aged 30. Saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself.” Following the dedication of Pitt’s plaque, it was decided that since there were now other ways to recognize civilian courage, no more names would be added to the wall.

As many of you know, since lockdowns began, I’ve spent a lot of time walking around London looking for sites that are related to the Blitz, Special Operations Executive or just historically interesting. As it is central to many of these stories, these walks frequently take me to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece is only about a five-minute walk from Postman’s Park. Since I frequently find myself in the neighbourhood, whenever my feet need a rest, I make my way to the park. If I’m lucky, I find a spot on the benches along the memorial wall; rest a bit out of the sun and take some time to jot down a few notes, go through my pictures or plan out the rest of my day. I also take a moment to read at least one of the plaques on the wall. For someone who has spent a good deal of his professional life studying the heroic acts of brave men and women in wartime, it is good to be reminded that heroism comes in all shapes and sizes, which is what Watts had intended.

Learn More About Postman’s Park

Heroes of Postman’s Park: Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Victorian London, by John Price is a wonderful book that not only goes into the detail of Watt’s memorial, but also describes the actions of each of the 53 heroes commemorated on the wall of the memorial.

Check out the Postman’s Park website >

The address for Google Maps and SATNAV is:

Postman’s Park
King Edward Street
London, EC1A 7BT

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