Tucked away in a quiet corner of Postman's Park in central London, easily overlooked, lies a remarkable memorial. Under a wooden canopy, stands a short stretch of brick wall upon which are affixed over fifty ceramic plaques, each bearing the name of an ordinary person who performed a final, extraordinary act of bravery and self-sacrifice in their life. Some plaques bear two or more names. Altogether some sixty-two people are commemorated here. All of them died while trying to save the lives of others.
The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was created by artist George Frederic Watts, who put forward the idea for a memorial in a letter to The Times in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria's golden jubilee. Watts had been colleting stories of heroic sacrifice from newspaper clippings for many years. One story that struck a special chord was that of Alice Ayres, a servant who saved the lives of her employer’s three children by throwing a mattress out of the window to cushion the fall and dropping them to safety. Alice herself was overcome by fumes and stumbled out of the window to her death.
Photo credit: Cheesyfeet/Flickr
George Frederic Watts wrote in his letter to The Times:
The character of a nation as a people of great deeds is one, it appears to me, that should not be lost sight of. It must surely be a matter of regret when names worthy to be remembered and stories stimulating and instructive are allowed to be forgotten.
It is not too much to say that the history of Her Majesty's reign would gain a lustre were the nation to erect a monument, say, here in London, to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes. I cannot but believe a general response would be made to such a suggestion, and intelligent consideration and artistic power might combine to make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.
Sadly, nobody paid attention to this beautiful idea. So Watts decided to fund the memorial himself. Ten years later, he was able to raise £3,000 for its construction —he himself bore £700 (about £71,000 as of 2017). The memorial opened in 1900 with just four plaques, with a further nine tablets added during Watts's lifetime. After his death in 1904, Watts's wife, Mary Watts, took over the management of the project. But as Mary became more and more preoccupied with the management of the Watts Gallery and Watts Mortuary Chapel in Compton, Surrey, she began to lose interest in the project. Work ceased altogether in 1931 with only 53 of the planned 120 tiles in place.
The memorial came into public notice in 2004 when it appeared in the movie Closer, where the memorial was used as a key element in the movie’s plot. Three years later, Leigh Pitt, a print technician from Surrey, died rescuing a nine-year-old boy drowning in a canal. Following his death, his colleague, Jane Michele, approached the Diocese of London to suggest a new addition to the memorial, in the name of Leigh. Despite opposition from the Watts Gallery to proposals that the memorial be completed, a new plaque commemorating Pitt’s heroic actions was added on 11 June 2009 — 78 years after Mary Watts installed the last plaque.
The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, today, remains an obscure destination drawing only a handful of visitors.
Photo credit: Sarflondondunc/Flickr
Photo credit: Jez Nicholson/Flickr
Photo credit: Jez Nicholson/Flickr
Photo credit: Paul Robertson/Flickr
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