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Everyday heroes

Just north of St Paul’s Cathedral in London is a small patch of peaceful green space, surrounded by tall buildings. Known as Postman’s Park (the headquarters of the General Post Office used to be nearby, and it was long a popular haunt of posties), it is home to one of the City’s most endearing public monuments — the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, created by the artist George Frederic Watts. The Memorial lists the names and deeds of people who died while saving the lives of others, and who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Arranged on a long wall are over fifty ceramic tablets, describing the acts of bravery of ordinary men, women and children (the youngest eight years old). The Memorial, which was unveiled in 1900, celebrates the ‘heroism of every-day life’: as well as being a place of remembrance, it was intended to serve as an inspiration to those who read the descriptions of bravery inscribed on the memorial tablets.

The trouble is, a lack of space means that each tablet tells you just enough to intrigue, but little more. Who, for example, was John Cramner Cambridge, who was drowned in 1901 near Ostend in Belgium, ‘while saving the life of a stranger and foreigner’? How was it that the doctor at Middlesex Hospital, William Lucas, ‘risked poison for himself rather than lessen any chance of saving a child’s life,’ and so died, in 1893?

Dr John Price, a historian and Lecturer in modern British history based at the University of Roehampton’ has been researching the stories behind the tablets for over a decade. ‘I used to show the memorial park to my friends,’ he says, ‘and would give them the back-stories behind the inscriptions. And those friends used to say, “what a shame you can’t be here all the time, explaining who these people were”.’

Hidden from history?

But now we have the next best thing to an academic permanently stationed at the site. The Everyday Heroes of Postman’s Park mobile app is available for free, and enables anyone with a compatible smartphone to find out more about the sixty-two individuals commemorated on the tablets. For each person, there is a full description of who they were, and of the incident in which they died. In many cases, there are photos too. The app brings the ordinary heroes to life as real people, rather than just names on a monument.

There’s Alice Ayres, for example, a servant who, trapped in a burning house, gave up the chance to escape to safety, running back three times to rescue her employer’s children, before being overcome by fumes and falling to her death — her story features in Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer.

The people who are commemorated in Postman’s Park were mostly unremarkable during their lifetimes, and would have remained hidden from history were it not for the circumstances of their deaths. Using Watts’s own original newspaper cuttings and notes, as well as Coroner’s reports and other sources, John Price has been able to piece together the lives behind the heroic deeds, and on occasion (since Watts was generally working only from the first reports of incidents) correct details. We learn, for example, that John Cranmer Cambridge died saving two ‘strangers and foreigners,’ not one.

As John Price says, though, the back-stories on the app are written in the same tone of voice as the original inscriptions. ‘It was important to Watts that you should make up your own mind about the actions that he was describing. He doesn’t tell you how to feel about them, and so we don’t pass judgement on them either — we don’t describe events as “tragic”, for example, or “sad”.’

Only connect

The Everyday Heroes app came about through the intervention of Creativeworks London, one of four Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Creativeworks put John Price in touch with developers Prossimo Ventures, who had the skills to realise the app that he’d long had at the back of his mind.

For John Price, coming to understand the technology involved in creating an app led him to think much more carefully about how information about Postman’s Park might be presented. ‘I saw how you needed to break the material up, to make it accessible, and make it interactive. At the same time, though, I had to resist the urge to over-dramatise the stories I was telling, to ensure that the app is still rigorous in the information it provides.’

For Prossimo Ventures’ Managing Director Gary Gregson, meanwhile, working on the Everyday Heroes app has also brought benefits — ‘the app uses some innovative image recognition software, meaning that you only have to point your smartphone camera at one of the memorial tablets, and it will work out which one it is. We may well find uses for that software in other areas.’ The collaboration with John Price has opened-up other opportunities for Prossimo Ventures, to work with universities. But as Gary Gregson points out, ‘we’d never have met John, without Creativeworks bringing us together.’

A place for the app

Postman’s Park is no longer open to new memorial tablets, commemorating new acts of heroism: given that this was a personal project of G. F. Watts, bearing his stamp and very much of his time, and given that the modern honours system now performs much the same function as the Memorial, it was decided to close the door to new entries.

But of the people whose names are on the tablets, we now have a much better understanding — who they were, what sort of life they led, and what exactly happened on the day they died. In this respect, the app meets one of Watts’s original objectives in creating the Memorial, in that it encourages the viewer to find out about the person behind each act of heroism, and wonder who would have been capable of it.

Everyday Heroes is a good example of what a mobile app can do — allowing people in a particular locality to engage more deeply with that place, and with the past. And only the bringing together of research and technology, of academia and business, could have created it.

For further information, please go to the Everyday Heroes website.

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