The Truth Is Somewhat More Prosaic
Sarah Smith, in pantomime, at the Prince’s Theatre, Died of the terrible injuries received Attempting to extinguish the flames on her companion, Twenty-fourth of January, 1863. This tribute, dedicated to heroic selfless sacrifice, Lends itself to poignant poetry. However, as the actual truth is somewhat more prosaic, Romantic verse becomes the casualty: Sarah Gibson, ballet dancer at the Princess Theatre, Died of the terrible injuries received In Middlesex hospital, a few days after her dress caught fire on stage during a live performance, despite the best efforts of the stage manager, Mr Robert Roxby, and others, who tried to extinguish the flames, Twenty-eighth of January, 1863.
Postman’s Park, a small green space in Aldersgate, is made up of three churchyards: St Botolph’s Aldersgate, St Leonard’s Foster Lane and Christchurch Greyfriars. Its name reflects the one-time proximity of several major buildings that made up the national headquarters of the General Post Office. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, this area was known as the Post Office quarter, and the nearby St Paul’s underground station was named ‘Post Office’ until 1937. Today, all the postal buildings are long gone. Thus Postman’s Park is something of a misnomer, in that the chances of finding a postman, or postwoman, sitting down to have their lunch here today are negligible.
If one is spotted on a prandial outing, perhaps they have been attracted on hearing that a tropical banana tree grows here. However, their appetites will be disappointed, as this variety does not produce any bananas, and even if it did, they would be inedible. Another rare non-indigenous tree planted here is the Davidia. It was originally introduced to this country from China by the eminent plant collector Ernest Wilson. The deceiving shapes created by its large white bracts have induced folk to label it with all kinds of names including handkerchief tree, dove tree and ghost tree.
In the centre of Postman’s Park sits the Wall of Sacrifice. This is a memorial cloister commemorating heroic sacrifice on behalf of others, conceived of by the nineteenth-century British artist George Frederic Watts. The tributes are inscribed on Royal Doulton tiles. The memorial was initially created for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 but didn’t officially open until three years before Watts’s death in 1904. A small wooden statue of him stands in the centre of the cloister. His wife Mary continued to add to the tiles. The most recent was added in 2009.
The oldest memorial on the wall is dedicated to Sarah Smith. However, this was a stage name, and almost all the other facts as stated on the tiles are incorrect. As revealed in the last verse, the truth is somewhat more prosaic.
The Wall of Sacrifice featured in the 2004 movie Closer starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Natalie Portman. The character played by Portman sees the name Alice Ayres on one of the tributes and adopts it as a false name Despite all the apparent deceptions, Aldersgate has evoked spiritual moments of truth. It was the site of the evangelical conversion for the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, on 24 May 1738. The date is commemorated in the Methodist Church as Aldersgate Day. Just a few days earlier, his brother Charles had a similar conversion on Little Britain, opposite the churchyard. Their father Samuel was curate of St Botolph’s Aldersgate when he married his wife Susanna, known as the Mother of Methodism. A stained-glass window in the church depicts John Wesley preaching in London.
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