Postman’s Park is hidden away park in central London, a short distance north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Bordered by Little Britain, Aldersgate Street, King Edward Street, and the site of the former head office of the General Post Office (GPO), it is one of the largest parks in the City of London, the walled city which gives its name to modern London. A shortage of space for burials in London meant that corpses were often laid on the ground and covered over with soil instead of being buried, and thus Postman’s Park, built on the site of former burial grounds, is significantly elevated above the streets which surround it. It is best known as the location of the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.
Opened in 1880 on the site of the former churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldersgate church, it expanded over the next 20 years to incorporate the adjacent burial grounds of Christ Church Greyfriars and St Leonard, Foster Lane, as well as the site of housing demolished during the widening of Little Britain in 1880, the ownership of which became the subject of a lengthy dispute between the church authorities, the General Post Office, the Treasury, and the City Parochial Foundation. The park’s name reflects its popularity amongst workers from the nearby GPO’s headquarters.
In 1900, the park became the location for George Frederic Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice (also known as the Wall of Heroes), a memorial to ordinary people who died saving the lives of others and might otherwise have been forgotten, in the form of a loggia and long wall housing ceramic memorial tablets. At the time of its opening, only four of the planned 120 memorial tablets were in place, with a further nine tablets added during Watts’s lifetime. Following Watts’s death in 1904, his wife Mary Watts took over the management of the project and oversaw the installation of a further 35 memorial tablets in the following four years, as well as a small monument to Watts. However, disillusioned with the new tile manufacturer and with her time and money increasingly occupied by the running of the Watts Gallery, Mary Watts lost interest in the project and only five further tablets were added during her lifetime.
Although Watts’s plans for the memorial had envisaged names inscribed on the wall, in the event the memorial was designed to hold panels of hand-painted and glazed ceramic tiles. Watts was an acquaintance of William De Morgan, at that time one of the world’s leading tile designers, and consequently found them easier and cheaper to obtain than engraved stone.
In 1972, key elements of the park, including the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, were grade II listed to preserve their character. Following the 2004 film Closer, based on the 1997 play Closer by Patrick Marber, Postman’s Park experienced a resurgence of interest; key scenes of both were set in the park itself. In June 2009 the Diocese of London added a new tablet to the Memorial in the style of the Royal Doulton tiles for Leigh Pitt, a print technician from Surrey, had died on 7 June 2007 rescuing nine-year-old Harley Bagnall-Taylor who was drowning in a canal in Thamesmead. This tile the first new addition for 78 years and the 54th tablet
These photographs were commissioned by Thames & Hudson / View Pictures for an upcoming book on the architecture of the City of London
Photography © Quintin Lake, 2010