Talks about the Watts Memorial in Postman’s Park, 13-14 June 2015

As part of the 2015 Open Garden Squares Weekend we’ll be in Postman’s Park on Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th June.

Dr John Price from Goldsmiths University will be delivering a series of free talks on the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice and signing copies of his new book, Heroes of Postman’s Park: Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Victorian London.

The free talks (lasting around 30 minutes) will take place at the following times throughout the day – no need to book, just turn up in the park!

Saturday 13th June 2015: 11.30am, 1.00pm, 2.30pm; 4.00pm

Sunday 14th June 2014: 1.00pm, 2.30pm; 4.00pm

Each talk will consist of a brief history of the Watts Memorial and a short case study of one of the people commemorated.

John will also be available to answer questions about the memorial and discuss his work on civilian heroism.

There will be lots happening in Postman’s Park over the weekend, particularly on Saturday when the Friends of City Gardens will be selling refreshments, delicious homemade cakes, and plants.


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New books out this year!

2015 sees the publication of two books connected with the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman’s Park.

In June, the much-anticipated book revealing, for the first time, the remarkable lives and tragic deaths of all sixty-two people commemorated on the Watts Memorial will be published. This book, Heroes of Postman’s Park: Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Victorian London by John Price, will be published in paperback by the History Press. You can pre-order your copy here!

Also, July 2015 sees the paperback publication of the first in-depth study of the idea of ‘Everyday’ heroism. Previously only published in hardback, the paperback release of Everyday Heroism: Victorian Constructions of the Heroic Civilian by John Price will make the book more widely available for all those interested in conceptions of heroism and the heroic. You can pre-order a paperback copy here!

Details of book signings, lectures, talks and other events will be posted here in due course.

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Talks at Postman’s Park – 12 August 2014, 2.00pm-4.00pm

We’ll be at Postman’s Park between 2pm and 4pm on Tuesday 12 August doing a series of talks about the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice.

There will be an introduction and brief history of the memorial (repeated twice) and then two themed talks:

2.00pm: The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice: a concise history

2.30pm: Heroic Women on the Watts Memorial

3.00pm: The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice: a concise history

3.30pm: Heroic Children on the Watts Memorial

4.00pm: Q+A and Book Signing (copies of Postman’s Park: G. F. Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice by John Price will be available to purchase)

Why not take a late lunch and come along!

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Samuel Rabbeth and Barnes Old Cemetery – Part Two

Image of Samuel Rabbeth
Samuel Rabbeth (Illustrated London News)

It felt strangely familiar to be back at Barnes Old Cemetery, once again, armed with a camera, a notepad and, on this occasion, a more healthy and realistic scepticism about the possibility of discovering anything.

My research on Samuel Rabbeth suggests he was from a relatively wealthy family, his father having worked for Coutts Bank, and so I felt it was likely there would have once been a headstone, particularly given the circumstances under which Rabbeth had lost his life (you can learn all about Samuel Rabbeth in the Everyday Heroes app). Whether or not it had survived or whether it would still be accessible was the question.

The Grave of Samuel Rabbeth

The Grave of Samuel Rabbeth

As it happened, it did not take long to find the headstone; a slight path to the row had been cleared and the grave marker was distantly large and particularly noticeable due to the lengthy inscription that completely filled it. As I had expected, the unfortunate circumstances of Samuel’s death and the financial and social status of the family had led them to memorialise his life and death in a detailed manner. In addition to the headstone, there is also a bevelled tombstone recording the burials of Samuel’s father, John, and his aunt Annie.

Gravestone for Samuel Rabbeth

Headstone for Samuel Rabbeth

The full inscription on Samuel Rabbeth’s headstone reads:
“Sacred to the memory of Samuel Rabbeth M.B London M.R.C.S. Born 19 Aug 1858, died 20 Oct 1884. He was educated at King’s College London and at Kings College Hospital and was elected an associate of the college after passing his final examination at the University of London when he obtained a first place for honours in obstetrics gaining the university scholarship and gold medal. He was appointed Senior Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Free Hospital and was held in the highest esteem by many of the most eminent members of his profession who looked forward to his achieving a useful and brilliant career. His bright and cheerful disposition, his earnest and sincere character endeared him to numerous friends by whom his memory will be cherished with lasting affection. A little child suffering from diphtheria was brought to the hospital whom he endeavoured to save by an act of heroism that cost him his life but which has forever linked his name with the names of the brave and good of all time who have proved by their bright example how the grace of Christ-like self-sacrifice can ennoble humanity.
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25, 37-40.”

On the left hand side of the tombstone:
In loving memory of Annie Rabbeth born May 12th 1826, died Dec 25th 1916

Tombstone for John Rabbeth

Tombstone for John Rabbeth

On the right hand side of the tombstone:
“In loving memory of John Edward Rabbeth born Jan 10th 1823, died Aug 16th 1900. “he Giveth his beloved sleep””

Evidence suggests that Hannah Rabbeth, Samuel’s mother, died in 1858 either giving birth to him or very shortly afterwards but, at that time, the family were living elsewhere in London, possibly either Lambeth or Westminster and so Hannah Rabbeth is most likely buried in one of those districts.

So, after a couple of aborted attempts and a hiatus of several years, I have finally been able to locate the final resting place of Samuel Rabbeth, one of the everyday heroes of Postman’s Park and I’m pleased to be able to add these details to all the others in the Everyday Heroes app.

It is a real shame that more cannot be done to protect and preserve Barnes Old Burial ground and there is much that could be done to clear, record and maintain the site. If anyone has any practical suggestions or advice of establishing a ‘friends’ organisation or getting together some volunteers to maintain the site, please do get in touch!

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Samuel Rabbeth and Barnes Old Cemetery – Part One

Image of Samuel Rabbeth
Samuel Rabbeth (Illustrated London News)

Many years ago when I very first started researching the everyday heroes of Postman’s Park I was excited to discover that Samuel Rabbeth, the Medical Officer of the Royal Free Hospital who died in 1884 while treating a child suffering from diphtheria, was buried not far from where I was then living in Southwest London.

Armed with a camera, a notepad and an unhealthy degree of optimistic anticipation at the magnificent discovery I was about to make, I headed for Barnes Common, near to Barnes railway station, a small area of which had once been Barnes Old Cemetery. Before that first visit, I had little concept of a cemetery as being anything other than a neatly tended and well organised assembly of memorialised plots and I genuinely expected to find Samuel’s grave with relative ease.

Barnes Cemetery had been established in 1854; around two acres of consecrated ground, owned by the Church of England and intended as an additional burial ground for the local parish church. In 1966 it was acquired by Richmond upon Thames Council who removed the boundary fences and knocked down the chapel in preparation for converting the site into a lawn cemetery.

Henry William Pickersgill

Henry William Pickersgill

Francis Turner Palgrave

Francis Turner Palgrave

In addition to Samuel Rabbeth, the cemetery has some other notable burials; the artist Henry Pickersgill (1782-1875), the poet Francis Palgrave (1824-97), the MP and social reformer James Heywood (1810-97) and a Canon of Southwark Cathedral Benjamin Kitson (d. 1923).

There are also nine graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As with so many other great cemeteries, the renovation plan was ultimately abandoned and the area, left untended, was soon reclaimed by nature.

Barnes Old Cemetery (c. 2004)

Barnes Old Cemetery (c. 2004)

Thus, when I arrived at the site over ten years ago, all I discovered was a relatively impenetrable forest of trees, shrubs and brambles amongst which I could just about make out occasional graves and headstones. After numerous aborted attempts to get in amongst the brambles and having made several very unsavoury discoveries in the undergrowth I reluctantly concluded that it was something of a lost cause and that I stood little chance of finding Samuel’s grave. I left the site despondent and disappointed.

So, then, imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago I happened to be walking nearby the site and spotted, from the road, that a wide avenue had been cleared through the cemetery and I could see that many of the plots and headstones were now accessible. The excitement I had felt all those years ago returned and I detoured from my walk to investigate the full extent of the restoration.

It has to be said that, although much of the cemetery is still overgrown and inaccessible, whoever has started to clear it has down a remarkable job. It now has a similar appearance to some of the wooded areas of Abney Park or Nunhead Cemeteries; some main paths have been well cleared and other smaller paths have been carved out to allow access to areas where surviving headstones are most prevalent.

It was early evening when I first visited the site and there were quite a few men circulating around the area for very different reasons to me, so I decided that it might be better to return on another occasion, earlier in the day, to see if I could find any trace of Samuel Rabbeth’s Grave.

In part two: find out if I found anything on my second return visit to the cemetery…

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A remarkably lucky gravestone discovery

As part of my research into The Everyday Heroes of Postman’s Park, I’ve been keen to locate, visit and record their final resting places.  For some, such as Mary Rogers the Stewardess who drowned in the sinking of the SS Stella, this is not possible but for those who were buried in the UK I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and churchyards looking for evidence.

Hence the journey up the Jubilee line to North-west London last Sunday to visit a bright and sunny Hampstead Cemetery in search of the grave of brothers Harry and Frank Sisley. Harry’s brave conduct is recorded on the Watts Memorial in Postman’s Park; “Harry Sisley of Kilburn, aged 10, drowned in attempting to save his brother after he himself had just been rescued. May 24th 1878”. This narrative is fairly accurate and I document the full details of exactly what happened in the Everyday Heroes mobile app. Harry’s brother, Frank Herbert Sisley, was the older of the two aged just twelve.

I’d been unable to obtain a plot-map of the cemetery but luckily many of the graves were well marked and we were soon able to locate the appropriate section. The rows were haphazard and so we decided to systematically work our way through the headstones checking each one. We didn’t, though, have to wait long and almost immediate we found an impressive headstone marking the grave of the two Sisley brothers. Luckily, although much of the inscription was illegible, the names of Harry and Frank were visible, but this was not the most remarkable thing about the stone.

Headstone marking the grave of Harry and Frank Sisley

Headstone marking the grave of Harry and Frank Sisley

As I stepped back to photograph the location I suddenly realised that what I’d thought was a large bush just beside the grave was, in fact, the top of a tree which had fallen down, presumably in the recent storms. As these photographs show, had the tree fallen just a metre or so to its right, it would certainly have completely covered the stone and probably severely damaged it. I could not believe how lucky I’d been to not only find the grave and for there to be a legible headstone but also for this act of nature to spare this important artefact for it to be recorded.

Headstone marking the grave of Harry and Frank Sisley

Headstone marking the grave of Harry and Frank Sisley

The bottom half of the inscription was badly eroded but it clearly recorded other members of the Sisley family so once I got home it was back to the records to see who. Although they were buried in the adjacent plot, the boys’ mother and father, Sophia and George, are also recorded on the stone; Sophia died in 1902 and George in 1924. The other name is Alice Olivia Sidney, the sister of Harry and Frank, who died in 1888 aged just 15 or 16; the Sisley family certainly endured more than their fair share of tragedy. There are a notable number of other Sisley’s buried in Hampstead so it will be interesting, when I get time, to work out who they were and if they were related to Harry and Frank.

Headstone inscription for Harry and Frank Sisley and their sister, mother and father.

Headstone inscription for Harry and Frank Sisley and their sister, mother and father.

The headstone also carries a mournful inscription from Psalms chapter 90 verse 6, which luckily has also survived, ‘in the morning it flourisheth and groweth up, in the evening it is cut down and withereth’; this seems a melancholy but fitting tribute to two brothers who died at such a young age in such unnecessary circumstances.

The Everyday Heroes of Postman’s Park mobile app has now been updated with this new information.

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