The sixteenth of November, 2010: Postman’s Park, and we’re okay down here

In 1887, to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee the following year, the society painter George Frederic Watts began work on a series of ceramic plaques to commemorate the lives of Londoners who had died while attempting to save the lives of others.

The plaques are now displayed, along with others created after Watts’ death in 1904, in Postman’s Park, on King Edward Street (near St Paul’s cathedral) in London. They are only occasionally obscured by posties eating sandwiches.

Athur Strange died in a “desperate venture to save two girls from a quicksand in Lincolnshire”. John Cranmer was drowned when attempting to rescue “a stranger and a foreigner” off the coast of Ostend. Some of the plaques commemorate notables – self-sacrificing physicians such as Samuel Rabbeth and William Freer Lucas, for instance – but most are memorials to the sorts of men, women and children (“Henry James Bristow, aged eight, at Walthamstow on December 30, 1890 saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes, but caught fire himself”) whose names ought to be remembered but usually aren’t.

What follows is from Sick City by Richard Barnett (Wellcome Trust, 2008):

“The crowd has been seen as the bearer of sin, poverty and contagion, but the individuals who comprise it are also the agents of compassion and community. Through searing fires and icy winters, through churches and hospitals and orphanages, the city of multitudes looks after its own.”

Sometimes you even get a happy ending.

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