Where Nobodies are Somebody: Postman’s Park
A quaint park is hidden on Saint Martin Le-Grand not far from the Museum of London. It is not easy to find. I knew what I was looking for, and still had a difficult time spotting the small gate leading into the park, which is sandwiched between the tall buildings. Because the civil servants ate their lunch at this location over a century ago, it is named for them. Postman’s Park is also home to the Watts Gallery. Fifty-four tiles tell sad but heroic stories of common people who lost their lives in the act of trying to save someone else. Men, women and children who ran into fires, fell victim to drowning, or were hit by trains, while saving or trying to save others are listed on these tiles.
George Frederic Watts was the painter/sculptor/philanthropist who dreamed of this Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, and after years of lobbying it finally became a reality in 1900, when he was too sick to attend the opening.
120 spaces were laid out against a wall at the park for the placement of memorial tiles commemorating the sacrificial acts of common people attempting to save the lives of others. By 1931, fifty-three of these spaces had been filled. Then the wall stood silent and unchanged for seventy-eight years. The fifty-fourth name was added in 2009. The latest memorial tile reads, “Leigh Pitt, Reprographic Operator, Aged 30, saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead, but sadly was unable to save himself. June • 7 • 2007.”
In the movie “Closer,” Natalie Portman played a woman who took one of the names on the tiles at Postman’s Park, and created a false identity for herself around the name of Alice Ayres.
The real Alice Ayres was a hard working young housemaid, who lived and worked for the Chandler’s – her older sister’s family. They lived together above the oil and paint store owned by the Chandlers. On the night of April 24, 1885 a fire broke out in the shop, and trapped the family upstairs. Alice appeared at the window while a crowd below formed, and they shouted for her to jump, but instead she disappeared into the flames, and came back with a mattress, which she tossed onto the ground. Then she dropped five-year-old Edith onto the mattress. Twice more the crowd shouted for her to jump, as she disappeared and returned with two other children. After finally saving three of the four children, and being unable to reach the rest of the family, she attempted to jump, but was overcome by smoke and fell, hit the store sign, crashed to the sidewalk, and died two days later. Alice Ayres was twenty-five. Her death would gain national attention in the UK, at a time of growing concern over conditions of the common worker during the Industrial Revolution.
Her story would help create the momentum for George Frederic Watts’ passion to develop the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. In 1887, Watts wrote about Alice Ayres in a plea to create the memorial space:
“The roll would be a long one, but I would cite as an example the name of Alice Ayres, the maid of all work at an oilmonger's in Gravel-lane, in April, 1885, who lost her life in saving those of her master's children.
The facts, in case your readers have forgotten them, were shortly these:—Roused by the cries of "Fire" and the heat of the fiercely advancing flames the girl is seen at the window of an upper story, and the crowd, holding up some clothes to break her fall, entreat her to jump at once for her life. Instead she goes back, and reappears dragging a feather bed after her, which, with great difficulty, she pushes through the window. The bed caught and stretched, the girl is again at the window, a child of three in her arms, which with great care and skill she throws safely upon the mattress. Twice again with still older children she repeats the heroic feat. When her turn comes to jump, suffocated or too exhausted by her efforts, she cannot save herself. She jumps, but too feebly, falls upon the pavement, and is carried insensibly to St. Thomas's Hospital, where she dies.”
Seventy-six spots remain open on the memorial wall. It is not difficult to find the names to fill those spaces. There are some people who are pretenders, trying to take on the name of a self-sacrificing hero, but others are made of the simple stuff from which real heroes are crafted. Famous people, rich people, unknown people, and poor people from every tribe, religion and non-religion under the sky have self-sacrificing heroes among their numbers, and there are not enough memorials in the world to memorialize these micro-saints around us.
No soldier nor sailor by land or sea
In the bed of honour laid.
Was ever more great of heart than she.
That simple serving maid.
I would be a shame to wait for heaven in order for us to see the canonization of the common man and woman to occur.