A guide to Postman’s Park, a public garden in London famous for the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.
Surrounded by tall buildings within the heart of The City lies the tranquil Postman’s Park, one of the hidden gems in London. If you’re after quirky things to do in London, then a visit to Postman’s Park is definitely a must. Because, while it appears to be just a simple yet well-maintained public garden, you’d never guess its remarkable function. Ready to be wowed by this insider secret London tip? Then read on to get to know Postman’s Park!
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What is Postman’s Park, London?
Is it a park?
Is it a cemetery?
Is it a memorial?
Ding ding ding … It’s all of the above!
Did you realise that the majority of today’s little green spaces in London are in fact former burial grounds? A rather gruesome thought when you’re munching away at your Pret sandwich seated on a park bench, right? (Sorry, didn’t mean to spoil your appetite there!)
So, any thoughts on Postman’s Park initial purpose?
Yep, you got it: it was originally used as a burial site.
Located in between the three neighbouring churches of Christchurch Greyfriars, St Botolph without Aldersgate and St Leonard Foster Lane, Postman’s Park formed an amalgamation of their separate yet almost connecting burial grounds.
The need for out-of-town cemeteries
As the population of the city of London grew significantly in the 19th century, the number of its dead rose dramatically as well. Due to several cholera outbreaks in the city and overall high mortality rates, the small parish churchyards could no longer accommodate the dead.
Literally every available space in the city was utilised as an impromptu burial site. Today, this period in London’s history is referred to as the Victorian burial crisis.
Unable to provide sufficient final resting places for the deceased, desperate undertakers would perform illegal burials where they put the recently departed in shallow graves.
Using quicklime for a faster decomposition, the ‘grave’ could be re-used again in a matter of months.
Ethics aside, these neglected sites would stink horrendously. Not to mention the plethora of diseases the decaying bodies seeping into the water could lead to, and sometimes even did. This practice really was a potentially catastrophic health disaster in the making.
Can you just imagine how dire the situation must’ve been back in those days?
Eventually, the passing of The Burials Act in 1851 put an end to all of this. The law now prohibited new burials within the city limits, which was of course significantly smaller then.
Instead, they built the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’, seven large private cemeteries outside central London. The most famous of them all would be Highgate Cemetery, which curiously enough became one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.
From burial ground to public park to memorial to Hollywood film location
Following the passing of the Burial Act, Postman’s Park was cleared of its graves and covered up. However, this was a very slow process and it wasn’t till 1880 that Postman’s Park opened as a park.
Interesting the backstory of Postman’s Park may be, it’s not what makes this particular park stand out. Because London is riddled with former burial grounds that were repurposed into small public parks.
No, what makes this cemetery-cum-park so unusual is the special memorial that was installed here in 1900. Named after its founder painter, sculptor and philanthropic George Frederic Watts, the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice is a 15m-long covered wooden walkway.
It may be modest in appearance, but grand in its meaning. I even dare to say that the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice truly is like no other!
Because you see, unlike most of London’s historic memorials that are dedicated to royalty, politicians, war heroes, artists etc, Watts wanted to celebrate everyday heroes who lost their own lives whilst selflessly trying to saving those of others.
The memorial holds 57 ceramic tiles that tell the tale of 62 ‘common’ heroes between 1863 and 2007 whose heroic acts and tragic fate would have otherwise been erased from history. Often still in the prime of their life, they met their unfortunate death by fire, drowning or some other type of horrific accidents.
One of these tiles, the one for Alice Ayres, a young servant who died after saving three children from a burning house, plays a key role in the 2004 film Closer. Starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, a crucial scene of the film was even shot in Postman’s Park.
Postman’s Park plaques
Who were these 62 heroes that are forever immortalised in the Postman’s Park plaques?
Before he fell ill, they were personally chosen by Watts himself from newspaper clippings he had read and kept for many years. And after he died, his widow Mary Watts and also the Heroic Self Sacrifice Memorial Committee continued his work. Together, they selected names from Watt’s original list, but also more recent news clippings and suggestions from public bodies.
Being an expensive undertaking, the production and installation had to be done in parts. In the end, work on the remaining empty rows was abandoned by Mary Watts as her focus and finances were directed towards new building projects.
Though some more additions were installed afterwards, by the time of Mary Watts’s death in 1938, the memorial was still far from finished.
After a 78-year-long hiatus, the most recent addition is the one for 30-year-old Leigh Pitt who drowned in a canal saving a nine-year-old boy in 2007. But to this date, still less than half of the 120 available spaces are filled.
Besides the ceramic plaques, there’s also a wooden relief picturing George Frederic Watts holding a scroll titled ‘Heroes’. The caption reads “The utmost for the highest” and inscribed at the bottom you can read the following text:
“In memorial of George Frederic Watts, who desiring to honour heroic self-sacrifice placed these records here”
Postman’s Park gravestones
Walking through the park, there are no obvious clues to its former function as a cemetery. Until you reach the group of gravestones stacked against the wall in a corner on the right-hand side of the memorial, that is.
When the cemetery was cleared from the 1850s onwards, relatives of the deceased were given the chance to have the bodies and gravestones removed. However, removal costs were the families’ responsibility so chances are the majority of the remains weren’t collected.
And what do you do with a heavy gravestone anyway? Use it as coffee table in your humble Victorian ramshackle abode?
Thankfully, the church didn’t destroy the headstones but kept them as yet another type of memorial. A memorial to those whose lives but also deaths are forever entwined with London’s intricate history and have given colour to the city’s multi-faceted identity.
Why is it called Postman’s Park?
With such a name, you’d almost expect the park to be filled with shorts-wearing red-Royal-Mail-bag-bearing postmen on their lunch break. Alas, no postmen have been ever been sighted during any of my visits.
So why is it called Postman’s Park then?
Well, because the headquarters of the former General Post Office was located in its vicinity. So, in the past it would indeed have been a popular lunch break destination for the post office workers!
Being the UK’s first purpose-built post office, the Greek-style building was an impressive piece of architecture. It didn’t only lend its name to the park, but when the nearby Central Line Tube Station first opened, it was also called Post Office. The name was later changed into St Paul’s in 1937 which we still know it as today.
Can you visit Postman’s Park?
Yes, Postman’s Park is open to all visitors, whether you’re a postman or not. Opening hours are from 8am to 7pm or dusk, whichever is earlier.
Where in London is Postman’s Park?
Postman’s Park is located at a mere 5-minute walk from St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s enclosed by the four streets Little Britain (this street name sure makes me laugh each time I see it!), Aldersgate Street, St Martin’s Le Grand and King Edward Street.
How to get to Postman’s Park?
The nearest Tube Stations are St Paul’s Station (3-minute walk) and Barbican Station (6-minute walk). You can enter Postman’s Park from Aldersgate Street and King Edward Street.
Things to do near Postman’s Park
There are plenty of great things to do in a 10-minute walk radius from Postman’s Park.
Crossing King Edwards Street, you’ll find the Christchurch Greyfriars Church Gardens. This equally surprising manicured garden incorporates the remains of Christchurch Greyfriars which was destroyed during the Blitz.
Walking a bit further south there’s the majestic St Paul’s Cathedral. One of London’s most famous cathedrals isn’t only a stunner from the outside, but even more grand from the inside. Let alone the gorgeous panoramic views of London you’ll catch from the top.
And at the other end of Millennium Bridge, you’ll find Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the amazing Tate Modern, one of my favourite free museums in London.
Alternatively, walking towards the north from Postman’s Park, there’s the Museum of London, yet another fantastic free museum. Nearby cultural Barbican Centre holds inspirational exhibitions, music performances and film screenings.
Saving one of my favourite secret London tips till the very end, I urge you to pay a visit to Guildhall. Walking less than 10 minutes in westward direction from Postman’s Park, this is one of the most important historical sites in London.
First used as a proper stadium-sized Roman amphitheatre that could seat 7,000 bloodthirsty spectators, Guildhall has been at the heart of London’s city life for nearly 2,000 years now.
I gave you the tips, now it’s up to you to go out and explore!
But before you dash off, tell me, is there a park near you that has an interesting backstory or feature?
Let me know in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx