When it comes to London I am known for avoiding the tube where possible and travelling by foot. It’s a habit I’ve acquired from my Dad who used to take us to London a lot when we were kids and for whom, travelling by foot was the favoured mode of transport. You can just imagine the whingeing and whining that often happened as he powered ahead with two kids who could barely match his stride, struggling to make two for every one of his. But now, some 15 years later, I can both understand and appreciate his way of thinking. Not only has it resulted in me having confidence in navigating around the city, but it has also revealed so much more of the city to me, including the subject of this blog.
Short cuts can reveal all sorts of unusual places and on a recent visit to the Museum of London I stumbled across Postman’s Park, where I was surprised to discover The Watts Memorial to the Heroic Self-Sacrifice. At first I saw it from a distance – this rather imposing and curious looking memorial – and there was just something about it that lured me forwards. It was quite different from any other I have seen and curiosity took over, particularly when I saw the inscription which ran across the top of the wooden structure and read ‘In Commemoration of Heroic Self Sacrifice’.
|The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice |
Picture © Eleanor Larsson
As I approached specific details began to stand out more - the number of individual plaques that each bore a name, dates and writing. To one side there was a sign that read as follows, offering some explanation behind the memorial:
G.F. Watt’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.
Unveiled in 1900, The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was conceived and undertaken by the Victorian Artist George Frederic Watts OM RA (1817-1904).
It contains plaques to those who have heroically lost their lives trying to save another.
Watts believed that these ‘Everyday’ heroes provided models of exemplary behaviour and character.
‘The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession: the deeds of its people are’ G.F. Watts
‘Greater Love Hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,’ John 15:13.
Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey.
|Picture © Eleanor Larsson|
I found this memorial incredibly poignant and as I moved along the wall, reading more of the individual plaques and the ways in which each lost their life whilst saving that of another, I couldn’t help but respect and admire the bravery of those remembered there.
The people remembered span across some 150 years. The most recent dating from 2007, while the earliest case comes from 1863 and is that of Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist at the Prince’s Theatre, who had tried to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion, but she herself died of the injuries she sustained in trying to do so.
Other cases document those who had been in the emergency services and acted while on duty, policemen and members of the fire brigade, while others were reacting to workplace incidents, air raids or freak accidents they just happened to witness. The cases documented are such human stories, featuring men and woman, child and adults, all ordinary people, who if it weren’t for the events that took their lives, would have been hidden from history. The memorial really made a strong impression on me.
|Picture © Eleanor Larsson|
It would seem that Watts had a particular motive in mind when creating this memorial - moral improvement, one of the key concerns of the Victorian age. But I think it also stands the test of time. By reminding us of ‘everyday’ heroes we are forced to confront quite an uncomfortable truth. I think we’d all like to think that in a crisis we’d respond and react in a similar way, but how many of us would actually do so when so often we walk along with headphones in our ears, buried in our phones and completely oblivious to the world going on around us.
Discovering this memorial caused me to have an interesting moment of reflection, one which was prompted by a fascinating piece of history.
You can find more information about the memorial here - http://www.postmanspark.org.uk/about.html