Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Postman's Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice

London's Square Mile is notoriously short of green space.  A crowded maze of winding streets for many centuries, the City of  London was originally bound by the ancient Roman walls and as the city expanded open spaces became further and further away for those living in the dirty and overcrowded centre of town.  Although the Royal Parks of London have a longer history, it was the Victorians who first advocated a wider movement for open spaces in Britain's industrialising towns and cities.  Much of the reasoning behind the parks movement came from the belief that the widespread disease in urban areas came from dirty air - or 'miasma' - and parks were seen as a way to improve the health of those who could not afford gardens or country retreats of their own.

It is perhaps a little ironic, then, that the subject of today's blog, the Postman's Park, is built on the site of one of the most pressing public health problems of the nineteenth century - the graveyard.  Catharine Arnold's grimly fascinating Necropolis - London and its Dead documents in gruesome detail the problems faced in Victorian London when it came to burying the city's dead. The eventual solution to the overcrowded, insanitary and undignified burial grounds dotted around London was the creation of the 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries in the suburbs between 1832 and 1841 - Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets - which provided huge spaces where people could be laid to rest away from the city's water supplies and with enough room that bodies would not have to be disinterred after a short time and disposed of to make way for new burials.  The Burials Act of 1851 prohibited any new burials in the old churchyards in built up areas.  Many of these burial grounds were subsequently redeveloped, but after its closure it was decided that the churchyard of St Botolph Without Aldersgate would be converted into a public park.  The following announcement was made in 1858:

The Churchwardens of the above parish hereby give notice that they intend to plant, pave, or cover over the churchyard and burial-ground. Persons having relatives interred in the said churchyard or burial-ground will be permitted (under certain regulations) to remove and inter the remains of such relatives in any burial-ground or cemetery, without the city. Persons also, to the memory of whose relatives any tomb, monument, or inscription may have been erected therein, may (under the like regulations) cause such tomb or grave-stones to be removed and taken away; but such removal, in either case, must be at the expense of the persons causing the same to be done. Applications for either of the above purposes must be made, in writing, on or before Monday, the 20th day of December, 1858. (Source)

The clearing and landscaping of the burial ground was a slow process, taking many years.  The gravestones that were not claimed by relatives were rearranged to make up the boundaries of the park and remain there today.

The park, which can be found a short distance north of St Paul's Cathedral, with entrances on Aldersgate Street and King Edward Street, is on the site of the former burial grounds not only of St Botolph Without Aldersgate, but also of Christ Church Greyfriars and St Leonard's Foster Lane.  St Leonard's was one of the churches not rebuilt after the Great Fire, and Christ Church Greyfriars was destroyed in the Blitz (its ruins are now a pleasant flower garden).  Because of its burial ground history, the ground level in the park is several feet higher than that of the surrounding streets.  The latter two churchyards were adjacent to that of St Botolph, but because of their smaller parishes and slower burial rate when they were acquired by the parish of St Botolph their ground level had to be raised to match that of St Botolph's.

Eventually opened in 1880, the park soon gained its name due to its popularity with workers from the nearby General Post Office headquarters.  Today it is still a popular place for City workers to congregate during their lunch breaks, but it is also a frequent stop for tourists due to its famous monument - the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice.

Featured in the 2004 film Closer (pictured above), the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was the brainchild of artist George Frederic Watts and his wife Mary.  The Memorial consists of a covered walkway with memorial tablets commemorating ordinary people who had given their lives whilst attempting to save the lives of others.  The wall was unveiled in 1900, although by this point only four memorial tablets had been installed on the wall.

The memorial tablets are made of ceramic tiles, which were cheaper to produce than engraved stone.  The design and styling of the tiles is not completely uniform - although they all follow the same basic principle of green or blue writing on a white background - as the memorials were not all produced and installed at the same time.  The wall has space for 120 of these memorials but a lack of funds meant that the project was halted in 1931 with just 53 memorials in place - and only a few of these had been sporadiacally added since Watts' widow withdrew funding from the project in 1910 (although she continued to have an interest in the memorial until 1930).  The tablet below is one of the later designs produced by Royal Doulton and installed in 1908.

No new memorials were added to the wall until 2009, when a tablet dedicated to the memory of Leigh Pitt, who had drowned in a canal in 2007 after diving in to save a drowning boy, was unveiled. 

Taking in the memorials is quite a sad and poignant experience, each one telling a story that were it not for the memorial would now be forgotten, consigned perhaps to a couple of column inches in an old newspaper and no more.  George Watts personally chose many of those to be immortalised on the memorial, but with Watts in failing health, and after his death, others were chosen by a committee.  This committee was originally named the 'Humble Heroes Memorial Committee' but Watts objected to this and it was renamed the 'Heroic Self-Sacrifice Memorial Committee'.

Watts died in 1904 at the age of 87 and a special plaque designed by T.H. Wren was added to the memorial and unveiled in 1905.  It depicts Watts holding a scroll with the word 'heroes' written on it.  The caption below the figure reads 'In memorial of George Frederic Watts, who desiring to honour heroic self-sacrifice placed these records here'.

However, not quite all of the inhabitants of the park - whether they be commemorated on the Memorial or rest under the soil - are deceased.  Spend a lunchbreak in the park and chances are you will encounter the exceptionally friendly robins that live there - the little chap pictured below was tame enough to take crumbs from my hand.  These cheerful residents add to the special atmosphere of the Postman's Park - if you're in that part of town, perhaps en route to St Paul's or the Museum of London, do pop in for a look around and make time to read the memorials.  It is a peaceful oasis in one of most crowded and busy parts of London.

Much of the detail in this article is courtesy of John Price's 2008 book Postman's Park: G. F. Watts's Memorial to Heroic Self-sacrifice, which was published by the Watts Gallery and can be purchased by clicking here.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bletchley Park

A state secret until the 1970s, Bletchley Park was home to the British government's top codebreakers during the Second World War and played an important role in the Allied victory.  It is now open to the public and having a free weekend on my hands, I decided to get on a train and pay it a visit (it is less than an hour's journey from London).  Much like it was during the war, Bletchley Park today is a hotch-potch of cottages, stables and huts nestling round an architecturally eccentric Victorian mansion.

The mansion and its estate had been owned by the Leon family but was put on the market in 1937 after the deaths of Sir Herbert Leon and his wife Lady Fanny.  It was bought by a property developer keen to redevelop the site as a housing estate but before this could happen it was acquired by M16.  Its location - adjacent to the railway - was an obvious asset and in the summer of 1939 the Government Code and Cypher School (later to become GCHQ) moved onto the site.  Bletchley Park would offer them a base safe from the anticipated air attacks on London.  To keep the purpose of the site secret, those arriving were referred to as "Captain Ridley's shooting party."

Anyway, to return to the present day - on arrival at Bletchley Park I was directed into Block B.  Admission for adults costs £12, and this price includes a free re-entry pass for the next 12 months.  Block B is one of the original wartime buildings (although the ladies loos were mercifully much more modern) and houses a fairly eccentric group of small exhibitions, as well as the shop.

It is probably worth noting at this point that I'd badly misjudged the sniffles that had been building up during the working week and within half an hour of arriving at Bletchley I had become quite unwell, and was pretty much unable to stop sneezing.  However, having travelled 50 miles to get there and keeping in mind the dedication of the codebreakers who worked at Bletchley during the war, I decided to persevere, although I do think that feeling so unwell probably meant I missed one or two things along the way (which makes the free re-entry pass even more excellent).

One of the first things you'll see in Block B is Stephen Kettle's statue and memorial to Alan Turing, probably the most well-known of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.  An astonishingly gifted mathematician who was an early pioneer of computer science, Turing's career and ultimately his life were cut short by his appalling treatment after he was outed as having had a sexual relationship with another man.  The exhibitions at Bletchley Park, however, make little reference to his sad death and concentrate instead on the incredible acheivements of his life.

In Block B we are confronted with a rebuilt, fully functioning model of the Bombe, a complex mechanical device used to break the German enigma codes which Turing helped to develop. Enigma machines - originally devised in peacetime for the purpose of preventing industrial espionage and keeping banking transactions confidential - worked by using a series of rotors to encrpyt messages, and the bombe consisted of a large number of rotors which effectively made it several Enigma machines working together, to increase the probability of breaking the code.  It was entirely mechanical and not programmable in the way that a computer would be.

The bombe - a very complex piece of kit!

This bombe was a prop in the film "Enigma"

Close-up of the rotors.
Block B also houses a large number of Enigma machines and other codebreaking contraptions, some of which are on loan from GCHQ and are described quite crypically, suitably enough.  It makes one wonder how many of these types of machines are still in use despite the huge advances in computer technology over the last couple of decades.

As well as the codebreaking devices, Block B exhibits many more everyday items from the Second World War, giving an insight into what life would have been like for those working at Bletchley Park.

Radio equipment

A gasmask for a baby
There was also an impressive collection of Airfix models of Second World War planes, tanks and ships, children's toys from the period and personal collections of veterans who served in different campaigns during the war and people who worked at Bletchley Park.

Upon leaving Block B I became a little disorientated due to feeling very poorly and sat for a while in the grounds before joining a guided tour, which began up at the mansion.  By the end of the war several thousand people worked at Bletchley Park and the mansion and its outbuildings which had originally made up the codebreakers' accomodation were joined by a number of huts and more permanent buildings.

Hut 8 (above) was where Alan Turing was based during his time at Bletchley Park.  Turing was initially put in a position of leadership, but was replaced when it became clear that his interests lay primarily in codebreaking.  He was joined by many of Britain's finest mathematicians and cryptanalysts, including Dilly Knox and Gordon Welchman.  Many of the codebreakers working at Bletchley Park were recruited straight from university, making its workforce - which also included a large number of female workers - predominantly youthful.  Many were housed with local people or placed in makeshift accomodation, and they made their way to work by whatever means they could find.

Today Hut 8 is used as an exhibition space, and sadly at present a lack of funding means that some of the other huts are in a sorry state of repair.  A number of them are boarded up and derelict which I found very sad - Bletchley Park may not be very glamourous, and the nature of its work was really quite nerdy and technical, but nonetheless it played a hugely significant part in the Allied victory and the talents and dedication of those who worked there deserves more recognition.

Bletchley Park is also home to the National Museum of Computing, which houses a rebuild of Colossus, the world's first programmable computer.  Colossus was designed by Tommy Flowers, a Post Office worker, in 1943 and a Colossus machine was operational at Bletchley Park by 1944.  Flowers' work at the Post Office was invaluable as the valves used to power telephone exchanges (which were in those days operated by the Post Office) were integral to the design of Colossus.  One drawback of these valves, however, meant that unlike a modern computer Colossus could never be turned off.  Despite this, it was a great success and by the end of the war ten of them were in operation helping to decrypt German intelligence.  

Colossus and its blueprints were officially destroyed after the war to maintain secrecy and the Colossus on display at Bletchley is the work of a dedicated team led by Tony Sale.  Using the remaining information about Colossus that survived the war, they rebuilt at Mark 2 Colossus in Block H, where a Colossus machine would have stood during the war.  It is a fascinating thing to behold - all wires, little lights and a constant stream of printouts.  Its inability to store any memory is another reason why it must be constantly switched on.

Apologies for the quality of these pictures - the bright sunlight flooding into Block H made it very hard to see how the pictures had come out!

After the guided tour was over, I went back to Hut 8 to have a better look at the exhibitions in there.  One of the exhibits was about "Pigeons in War".  Having seen a couple of stuffed pigeons who had been decorated for bravery during the war in the Imperial War Museum North, this little exhibition made for interesting viewing.  I still think it's wonderful that pigeons, as well as other animals such as dogs and horses, were recognised for their bravery during wartime.  The Nazi occupying forces severely punished anyone found aiding an Allied carrier pigeon and many clever methods were used to make the messages the birds were carrying as inconspicuous as possible, including removing a feather and placing a rolled up message inside its hollow part before reattaching said feather to the bird!  Special parachutes were also designed so that pigeons could be dropped from planes.

This cage was used for training carrier pigeons.

A pigeon parachute

Pictures of pigeons decorated for their bravery
After the pigeons exhibit, I decided to call it a day.  Despite feeling so poorly I had an excellent time at Bletchley Park and found the whole place fascinating.  I will definitely be going back again, and would urge any readers to visit too.  It would be very sad if such an important part of this country's history was lost due to a lack of funding, and given the current trend in government funding cuts Bletchley Park is dependent on visitor contributions more than ever.  I do apologise for the lack of technical content in this post - I wasn't at my most receptive during the visit and computer programming and codebreaking are certainly not areas that I have much knowledge of.

I had a much needed dose of cold relief when I got home!

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