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The Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice.


In a tranquil garden, just a stone's throw from St Paul's Cathedral, there stands a remarkable structure on the walls of which are a series of ceramic tiles on which are remembered long ago acts of heroic self sacrifice by ordinary men, women and children.

Acting on impulse, and with barely a thought for their own well-being, the humble, everyday heroes, went to the aid of others who were in peril and, in so doing, lost their own lives.

At the centre of the monument, has been described as "The People's Westminster Abbey", there is a small statuette of a bearded man, dressed in a long robe. His name is George Frederic Watts (1817 - 1904), and it was he who conceived the idea for this memorial to heroic self sacrifice, and it is thanks to his persistence, in the face of official indifference, that we are able to enjoy this poignant reminder of humble, everyday heroes from a bygone age.

This is the story of how the memorial came into being.

The inscription In Commemoration Of Herroic Self Sacrifice - 1899.


In the late 1860's George Frederick Watts had begun contemplating the concept of destiny and its manifestations in everyday life.

He had been particularly inspired by a passage in George Eliot's novel Felix Holt, which had been published in 1866.

The passage read:-

"...For what we call illusions are often, in truth, a wider vision of past and present realities - a willing movement of a man's soul with the larger sweep of the world's forces - a movement towards a more assured end than the chances of a single life. We see human heroism broken into units and say, this unit did little - might as well not have been. But in this way we might break up a great army into units; in this way we might break the sunlight into fragments, and think that this and the other might be cheaply parted with. Let us rather raise a monument to the soldiers whose brave hearts only kept the ranks unbroken, and met death - a monument to the faithful who were not famous, and who are precious as the continuity of the sunbeams is precious, though some of them fall unseen and on barrenness."


George Eliot's words started Watts thinking about the possibility of using multiple, individual commemorations to deliver a single, generic message.

In a bid to secure sponsorship, he outlined his idea in a letter to one of his patrons, Charles Rickards:-

"In the belief that art of noble aim is necessary to a great nation, I am sometimes tempted in my impatience to try if I cannot get subscriptions to carry out a project I have long had, to erect a statue to unknown worth - in the words of the author of Felix Holt, "a monument to the faithful who are not famous."

I think this would be a worthy thing to do, and if I had not unfortunately neglected opportunities of making money, I would certainly do it at my own expense. I am at this time making a monumental statue, and feel confident I could execute a colossal bronze statue that should be a real monument. I would give up all other work to be enabled to carry out such an idea, and should be contented if guaranteed against loss; contented to be able to meet the expenses of the undertaking.

A portrait of G. F. Watts.

George Frederic Watts (1817 -1904)
From The Illustrated London News
Copyright, The British Library Board


Rickards, however, remained unmoved by the idea, and his overall indifference to it was a reaction that Watts would grow used to over the next thirty years.


In 1887, Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee, and Watts decided that the mood was ripe for him to make another bid to bring his idea to fruition.

He wrote a letter, expounding his idea, to The Times, and this was duly published on 7th September 1887 under the heading "Another Jubilee Suggestion."

Part of the letter read:-

"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.

The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are."


Watts focused on the case of Alice Ayres, a servant girl, whose story had grabbed the public imagination in 1885, when she had sacrificed her life in bravely rescuing her three nieces from a fire in Union Street, Borough.

A portrait showing Alice Ayres with a child.

The Portrait of Alice Ayres
From The Illustrated London News 9th May 1885
Copyright, The British Library Board


Several newspapers applauded Watts's idea, amongst them, the Pall Mall Gazette, which sent a reporter to interview Watts about his idea.

The interview was published in its edition of the 1st November 1887:-

"I am very glad to be able to make this matter more widely known through you, for it is very near my heart, and I have been wishing to see the suggestion take a practical form for so many years; but though I have constantly spoken of it to friends the result has always been that it was applauded and - forgotten.

Failing other voices I raise my own: for my time is short, and I am earnestly desirous that the public should have the opportunity of pronouncing upon it soon, and I have little fear for the outcome.

"My proposal, as you know, is plainly this: that the memory of the deeds of heroism constantly recurring in our everyday life should be perpetuated and honoured as such deeds should, for they illustrate the character of our people as a nation of great acts. The material prosperity of a nation, as I have, already ventured to point out, is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its' people are. The frequency of such noble acts leads me to look hopefully to the future of a nation that can produce such heroes, whatever politicians and merchants may tell us; remembering, too, that they are more often than not enacted by what are called the "common people" in the poorest quarters.. At present, a newspaper paragraph recording the act is all that is devoted to their memory. We want something more than this."

"Something that would be the counterpart of the Victoria Cross, or the Humane Society's medal?"

"No - you are mistaken. That would be a reward. What I think is wanted is less to glorify those persons who have laid down their lives as the result of their courage and devotion, than to hold up the acts themselves for our admiration and benefit and our own instruction.

What hero whose name is inscribed on our rolls of fame has surpassed in pure bravery and fidelity Alice Ayres, maid-of-all-work at the oilman's in Gravel-lane, two years ago? The house was burning fiercely, and, though the crowd entreated her to save herself, she steadfastly refused, but instead pushed out from the upper window a feather-bed; and then fetched, one by one, her master's three children, and threw them out on to it; and when at last she tried herself to jump, exhausted by her exertions and by the heat and smoke, she sprang short, and died shortly after at the hospital.

Then, again, what could be more heroic and beautiful than the splendid behaviour of the crew during the sinking of a ship years ago, when it was found that the vessel had sprung a leak? The boats could carry no more than the women and children, and the sailors and many of the male passengers were left on board. The men were drawn up on deck as if on parade, and as the ship lurched and went down head foremost, captain and crew saluted.

See, too, the case quite recently of the flyman Taylor, at the Exeter theatre fire, who nobly ran from the ladder, which was his only chance of escape, to let down the act-drop, in the vain attempt to save the audience from panic, and so lost his life.

There are few of us who have not heard of some such deeds as these, and few of us, I fear, who have remembered them."

You propose, I understand, that a monument should be erected, and that upon it all worthy names should be inscribed?"

"Yes, but in a special way; as for many reasons I would not ask for a monument that could be looked upon or carped at as an artistic scheme promoted by an artist.

I have thought over the matter, and I believe that the most appropriate erection would be a colonnade - a kind of campo santo that might be placed in Hyde Park - near, say, the Achilles statue. It might, I think, be circular in form, and constitute a covered walk, while on its marble wall, name, deed, and date of each everyday hero might be carved, just as on the "Monument des Martyrs" at Brussels the names of the fallen patriots are inscribed in letters of gold.

A symbolical statue or group representing 'Heroism' might be placed in the centre.

But all these matters - form, position, and so forth - are details which I only venture now to hint at. The record is the chief thing, and I cannot but believe that a general affirmative response will be accorded to this suggestion. Then common sense and artistic power would combine in sympathy to produce a monument that would both serve its purpose and be an artistic addition to London adornments - in both respects, but especially in the former, an object of deepest pride to the nation - infinitely honourable to those who erect it and to those the memory of whose heroism it perpetuates."

"Could you let me have some idea, Mr. Watts - some sketch of the building you have in your mind, that I might lay it before the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette?"

"I would rather not. I am greatly anxious to see this duty, which, it seems to me, we owe to ourselves as a nation, carried out without any personal considerations whatever, and it would be unbecoming in me to make any suggestion of the kind.

I am more than willing that others should take up the matter and carry it out ; but if I am wanted I shall be ready."


However, a further ten years would pass before Watts's persistence would finally pay off.

But, by September 1898, Watts had been offered a section in the new extension of Postman's Park, by the then vicar of St Botolph's church, Henry Gamble.

His scheme was underway.

On 29th September 1898, the Pall Mall Gazette published the following article about it:-

"Mr. G. F. Watts, we are informed by the Daily News, is following up his Jubilee suggestion that a record should be kept of the heroism it every-day life.

"Deeds that have won the Empire" have their historians in abundance, but deeds that are chronicled in the daily paper become forgotten before the week is out.

Mr. Watts, With the co-operation of the vicar of St. Botolph's, Aldersgate, hopes to make a start in the garden, formerly churchyard, called the "Postman's Park.""

His idea - and a very pretty one it is - consists in the erection of an open gallery which will contain memorials of humble heroes and heroines in terra-cotta or some equally durable material.

Alice Ayres, the servant who died to save the children in the Gravel-lane fire, is to be the first subject for public honour.

It seems hypercritical to remark that Mr. Watts may find some difficulty in procuring likenesses of some of his doers of golden deeds.

Even if he should only succeed in procuring an imperfect record of the past, he is establishing a People's Westminster Abbey for the future.

The statues or tablets will have, of course, to be protected from the Hooligan, but that is a detail that can easily be thought out."


The Northern Whig provided further details on the intended scheme in it edition of 10th October 1898:-

"Mr. G. F Watts...has given some particulars to a Daily Mail representative of his scheme for the erection of a memorial to the heroes of humble life.

He intends to make use of the "Postman's Park," which is the churchyard of St Botolph's, Aldersgate, and to place on its walls tablets which shall commemorate brave deeds done, without thought of risk or hope of reward, by homely folk. Generally their reward was death.

The scheme is like Mr. Watts himself - modest and, simple and sincere. There will be no art in it, and no glory. It is not as an artist that he suggests it, but as an Englishman.

"The heroic deeds that are constantly coming before the public eye,", he said, "implying the sacrifice of life to save others, seem to me to constitute a grand and honourable feature of the national character. It is a great pity that they should only receive the recognition of a newspaper paragraph, and be forgotten next day. What I want is to establish a permanent memorial of them, which all who go by may read..."

"A chance has now arisen for at least making a commencement. Mr Gamble, the incumbent of St Botolph's, has given me an opportunity of starting the memorial in his churchyard.

My idea is to make a covered way round three sides of the quadrangle, supporting the shelter on columns, of timber if stone is too expensive. It will be a sort of cloister, if that is not too ambitious a word.

The memorial tablets will be placed on the wall, recording the brave deeds of the miner, the fireman, the lifeboatman, the policeman, the engine-driver, the labourer, and the domestic servant.

Every week some brave deed is done - and forgotten. It should not be forgotten. Such deeds as that of Alice Ayres, the servant girl who saved three children from a fire at the sacrifice of her own life, deserve to be handed down to posterity.

I intend to make a record of such deeds for the period of the Queen's reign.

Mr. Gerald Balfour, with whom I talked the matter over the other day, thought it would be difficult to make a selection. I do not wish to make a selection. Let them all be recorded.

A lady has undertaken to look up the cases for me in the files at the British Museum, and the memorials will be so simple that there will be no difficulty in recording them all - as simple as the impulse which led to the deed. No busts, no pictures - merely a tablet the date, the name, and the event.

The scheme will not include heroes of war, of the battlefield, or the warship. Honour is done already to the heroes of these services. I want honour to be done to those, equally brave, who neither expect it nor get it.

I think the scheme must be confined to those whose effort is followed by the loss of life, for, after all, it is a memorial.

There are a few preparations to make, but I hope to begin work very soon. The great thing is to begin.

...I have the dignity of the nation very much at heart, and I fear we are in danger of losing it. Drunkenness is sapping our character, and gambling threatens to destroy it. It is our duty to encourage what is good and vigilant and noble. I hope that the memorial of humble heroes will not be without its value in that directions..."


The memorial was completed in early 1900 and, by the first of July 1900, the first four plaques had been attached to the wall.

Surprisingly, in view of the fact that Watts had used her case to spearhead his campaign for the creation of the memorial, Alice Ayres was not one of the first to be included here.

The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette published the following article on 12th July 1900:-

"Some time ago Mr. G. F. Watts R.A, suggested that a cloister should be erected in the "Postman's Park," Aldersgate-street, for the dual purpose of providing a shelter in wet weather and placing on record deeds of heroism performed by heroes and heroines in the humbler walks of life. Mr. Watts offered to defray the cost of the undertaking, and the proposal was readily accepted by the authorities.

The cloister has been erected, and already four memorial tablets have been placed in position.

The inscriptions celebrate the deeds of a labourer, who was fatally scalded at the Battersea Sugar Works in trying to save his mate; the driver and fireman of the Windsor Express, who lost their lives in saving the train in July, 1889; the stewardess of the Stella; and a police constable, who, after rescuing two lives at a fire in Hackney Wick, saved a third life at the risk of his own."

The first floor plaques.

The First Four Plaques


Sadly, Watts himself was too ill to attend the unveiling ceremony for the monument he had fought so hard to erect, which took place on 30th July 1900.

The Evening Standard reported on the ceremony in its following day's edition:-

"The LORD MAYOR opened yesterday afternoon the new portion of the Aldersgate Public Garden, better known as Postmen's Park, together with a cloister, erected by Mr. G.Watts, R.A., for the commemoration of "Heroes in Humble Life."

The Chief Magistrate, who was accompanied by the Lady Mayoress, attended by the Sword and Mace Bearers, and preceded by the City Marshal, drove in semi-State from his official residence to St. Botolph's Church, adjoining the open space.

Here a short service was conducted by the vicar, the Rev. R. Gamble, assisted by the Bishop of London, previous to the formal ceremony.

The Bishop of London, in the course of a brief address, said they rejoiced at any, addition to open spaces in that great City, because they were absolutely necessary fur the welfare of the people.

On that occasion they had special delight in being present, because they were met to declare open a piece of ground which was intended to be a record of high and noble thoughts. The cloister, which the Lord Mayor was about to declare open, was to contain a record of obscure heroes, because it was a pure accident if a man or woman became a hero. No man could ever set to work to become a hero; it was the result of merely doing one's duty honestly and nobly. Heroism depended solely upon a person doing his duty without any other thought in his mind than doing his duty to the best of his ability. That, indeed was the secret of all life; at all events, it was the whole secret of heroism. The great power of life after all was simplicity. The thing that counted in life was the supreme simplicity of motive. It was most difficult to obtain the supreme simplicity of motive, but it was that which made the hero. It was by producing characters such as those who did their duty bravely and nobly, without thought of recognition or reward, that a nation waxed strong.

With the singing of the hymn "0 God, our Help in Ages Past" by the entire congregation, the service was brought to a conclusion.

A procession, headed by the clergy and choir, and followed by the Lord Mayor and the representatives of various bodies, was then formed and proceeded to the garden.

The Lord MAYOR, in declaring the cloister open, observed that they had there an institution absolutely unique, for he knew of no park or recreation ground which contained a cloister to commemorate heroism in humble life.

The man to whom that happy inspiration came had, indeed, done a very noble service, because it was intended to perpetuate those acts of heroism which more particularly appealed to the working classes.

There they would find heroism which had been called into being by a spirit of self-denial, heroism which had sprung from the love of one's fellow-subjects.

He had great pleasure in declaring the cloister and the new porch of the garden open to the citizens for ever (applause).

The vicar, who added a few words, regretted the absence, through illness, of Mr. Watts, and thanked the various bodies for the assistance they had received from them.

He hoped this would be but the beginning of the erection of similar memorial cloisters in all parts of the country..."


The Daily News reported on the ceremony in its edition of 31st July 1900, and mentioned a conversation that was overheard by its reporter as the assembly inspected the monument after the unveiling ceremony:-

"Afterwards the company inspected the ground and the cloister, and a fashionably-dressed young lady, looking at the tablets with their tale of heroic deeds and deadly suffering, remarked to her father, "How very pretty! But why are there only four? Why is it not filled?" A round gross of martyrdom was plainly the least that would satisfy her""


A further nine tablets were added to the wall in 1902, all of them manufactured by ceramist William De Morgan.

Watts himself funded the early memorials, and it was he who chose the heroes for inclusion.

However, in 1903, a committee was formed at St Botolph's church with the specific objective of choosing the candidates for inclusion.

Initially, the committee named itself "The Humble Heroes Memorial Committee", but Watts insisted that the name be changed as he thought the use of the word "humble" to be unnecessary, since the social class of the heroes was unimportant.

The criteria for inclusion were that a candidate would be from London and that the act of self-sacrifice must have taken place during the reign of Queen Victoria.


George Frederic Watts died on 1st July 1904, but tablets continued to be added.

A further eleven, again manufactured by De Morgan, were added, completing the middle row of 24 plaques.

A second row of 24 plaques, this time manufactured by Doulton of Lambeth, were added in 1908.

A single tablet was added in 1919, followed by a further three in 1930.

No further tablets were added for over 70 years, before, in 2009, a tile commemorating Leigh Pitt was added.

Today, visitors to the memorial in Postman's Park, can examine 54 memorial plaques, on which are remembered 62 acts of heroic Self sacrifice that took place between 1863 and 2007.

In the pages that follow you can read contemporary press accounts that gave details of the individuals and their brave acts of sacrifice that are remembered here. You can read the reports of the inquests into their deaths at which witnesses spoke of them; and you can see how society as a whole reacted to each one of the heroic acts.

Click Here For The Key To The Memorial.