Cemetery of the Week #47: Postman’s Park

Detail of the Heroes Wall

Postman’s Park
King Edward Street, London EC1
United Kingdom
Park founded: 1850
Size: less than an acre
Number of interments: perhaps none
Hours: None listed. It seems the park is always open.

Not far from the Museum of the City of London and the Barbican, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, lies Postman’s Park, one of the City of London’s largest green spaces.

Bordered by Little Britain, Aldersgate Street, and King Edward Street, the park is comprised of three former churchyards. These were stuffed to overflowing by the cholera outbreaks of 1831 and 1848, during which graves were reused so many times that the ground level is six feet higher than that streets outside.

A brass sign at the park’s entrance reports: “A church has stood here since the time of Edmund the Confessor. The present church of St. Botolph is the third, dating from 1754. In 1950, it because a guild church.”

St. Botolph’s is sometimes referred to as Without Aldersgate, which indicates that this church, initially built in the 10th century, stood outside (“without”) the old gate in the Roman Wall. The gate is long gone. The Wall itself has been reduced to a few fragments propped up here and there. It’s strange to imagine that this park, now in the heart of London, once stood on the city’s edge.

St. Botolph is the patron of travelers, so it made sense for his church to stand outside the wall. That way, visitors who arrived after London’s gates had closed for the night had a place to stay. The modern guild served by the church is postmen.

Very little is known about Botolph (more likely Botulf, since he was Anglo-Saxon), except that he built a monastery in East Anglia in 654 C.E. That church was destroyed in the Danish invasions, after which Botolph’s bones were parceled out to sanctify other churches. Three in London alone were named after him, all three of which were rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666.

The inscription at the park’s entrance continues: “Postman’s Park, which opened in 1850, is made up of the churchyards of St. Leonard’s, Foster Lake; St. Botolph’s, Aldersgate; and the graveyard of Christchurch, Norgate Street. More land bordering Little Britain was added in 1883. In 1887, Mr. G. F. Watts conceived the idea of a national memorial to heroic men and women and dedicated a wall to this cause in 1900.”

Before you reach the Heroes Wall, you pass through the park itself. Narrow and long, it has a lovely fountain and lots of benches, some of which are re-purposed granite sarcophagi.

Headstones lean against the neighboring building

Against the walls of the neighboring buildings lean eroded headstones from the original churchyards. Some stones are stacked three deep. The headstones are all the old tablet style, carved of marble or slate. They have been stained by soot and discolored by bright green mildew. Their inscriptions have been worn almost smooth. Nothing endures of these individuals: not their graves, not even their names.

Old, nearly blank headstones

At the back of the park stands the “cloister” covering the Heroes Wall. A cloister is a covered walkway around an open space, normally connecting a monastery or convent to its church. This freestanding “cloister” doesn’t connect to anything and has no religious significance, except perhaps to lend respectability to the monument within.

Born in London in 1817, George Frederick Watts became famous for painting “penetrating” portraits of Victorian notables. He presented 150 of his paintings to the National Portrait Gallery in the year before his death. His best-known sculpture, “Physical Energy,” was an equestrian statue unveiled in 1904.

For many years, he collected news stories about average people to saved others, often at the costs of their own lives. Actresses who died saving their colleagues, men rescuing their comrade at the sewage pumping works at East Ham, the laborer who was fatally scalded searching for his mate after the boiler exploded at a Battersea sugar refinery: Watts’ intention with his memorial wall was to recognize everyday heroism, as opposed to the heroism of warriors or politicians, and to inspire common people to look after each other. To qualify for memorialization on the wall, one had to give his or her life in an attempt to rescue someone else. Not all the rescues commemorated were successful.

The initial design called for 120 tablets, only 53 of which have been placed. The tiles were installed over a span of decades and their designs changed over the course of the project. The most recent panel was added in 2009 to commemorate Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007 while rescuing a child drowning in a canal in Thamesmead.

The Heroes Wall

Here are some of my favorite epitaphs:

“Salomon Galaman, Aged 11. Died of injuries September 6, 1901 after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street. ‘Mother, I saved him, but I could not save myself.’”

“William Donald, Baywater, Aged 19. Railway clerk. Was drowned in the lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed. July 16, 1876.”

“Henry James Bristow, Aged 8. At Walthamstow on December 30, 1890, saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock.”

“Sarah Smith, Pantomime Artist at Prince’s Theater, died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion. January 24, 1863.”

“David Selves, Aged 12, off Woolwich. Supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms. September 12, 1886.”

Useful links:

Information about the former graveyards

Map and subway line info

Lots of photos

Info on the play Postman’s Park and the tribute book

The Wikipedia article goes into much greater depth

Other London cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #69: Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #70: Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England

One response to “Cemetery of the Week #47: Postman’s Park

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #69: Kensal Green Cemetery | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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