The Age of The Humble Hero

A few minutes walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, in London, you will find a picturesque garden that offers a welcome respite from the rush and noise of the 21st Century metropolis.

It is called “Postman’s Park”, and it is unique amongst the City’s many open spaces in that it contains a very special wall.

This wall nestles beneath a tiled canopy and, on it, you will find a series of  ceramic memorial tiles, each one commemorating an act of “heroic self sacrifice” by a man, woman, or even child who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, went to the aid of a fellow human being who was in grave danger, and gave their lives in the process.

A photograph of the memorial.
The Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice, Postman’s park.


What is noticeable about these people is their sheer ordinariness; they weren’t soldiers (well, some were but they didn’t die as a result of combat); they were people who just happened to be passing when another person was in peril and, without giving it a second thought, they waded in (in some cases quite literally) and tried to help. They were, in short – and this is how the Victorians came to see them – “Everyday Humble Heroes”.

These people weren’t military heroes, nor were they what would be termed “Great Men of History.” Indeed, a large percentage of them were women and children. Their acts didn’t result in National glory or Imperial gain; and were it not for these poignant memorials in Postman’s Park, the names of those who sacrificed themselves so that others might live would have been long since forgotten.


But the Memorial testifies to something else that is not immediately apparent when reading the plaques.

Indeed, if you look at the date range of the acts of sacrifice you will notice that, with few exceptions, they belong to a period that runs from the 1860’s to the early 1900’s – in other words the acts of sacrifice took place in the latter half of the reign of Queen Victoria.

This, therefore, might be termed, the age of the humble hero.


What is interesting is that this “age” coincided with a period of major social unrest in Britain in general, and in London in particular.

The lower classes were beginning to bare their teeth, find their voices and demand their fair share of the spoils of Empire.

Events such as the Trafalgar Square riots of February 1886 and November 1887 had shaken the affluent classes to their core; and in some of the more conservative newspapers – not to mention in some of the more philanthropically inclined journals – this massive and vociferous underclass  was being portrayed as being made up of utter savages.

By advocating the concept of everyday, humble heroism, the press could go some way to assuage the fears of their middle and upper class readers, by portraying the lower classes – if not as equals (perish the thought!) at least as “noble savages.”


Interestingly, the seeds of the age of the humble hero were sown in the military.

In 1854, the Liberal MP Austen Layard had observed to Parliament how, on his recent return aboard a troop ship from the Crimean War, he had noticed that, whereas the French soldiers were proudly wearing their Legion d’ Honneur medals on their chests, the British soldiers had no equivalent award to take pride in.

His observation set in motion the establishment in 1856 of what would become known as the Victoria Cross which, although a military award, would, nonetheless, and for the first time, recognise acts of bravery by all soldiers, irrespective of class or rank.

Ten years later, in 1866, the authorities introduced the Albert Medal – initially reserved for sailors who  had tried to save lives during shipwrecks, or other perils at sea.


In 1877, following the Tynewydd Colliery disaster, of April 11th 1877 – which over a period of 11 days, saw miners risk great danger to free their workmates who had been trapped underground – the qualification for being awarded the Albert Medal was extended to acts of heroism on land as well as at sea.

Indeed, the first recipients of this new extension were those “gallant miners” who had, at great personal risk, dauntlessly fought to rescue their stricken comrades.

Gradually, more and more recognition was given to working class heroes from all walks of life and, by the 1880’s the concept of heroism was no longer the preserve of senior officers in the armed forces – everybody, irrespective of their class or their background had the potential to be a hero.


But, the observation of the cult of the everyday hero was not simply a Government initiative.

Indeed, private individuals were  mobilising to recognise the heroism of everyday folk.

Newspapers, such as The Illustrated Police News, for example, positively thrived on bringing their readers breathless accounts of brave acts that had resulted in tragedy for the perpetrator of the act.

Left-leaning philanthropists, such as Walter Crane, Annie Besant and Octavia Hill, were only to use the ideal of self sacrifice amongst the working classes, in attempts to change the general perception towards them.

An example of heroic self sacrifice from The Graphic.
From The Graphic, 28th October, 1871. Copyright, The British Library Board.


But, the most prominent exponent of remembering acts of heroic self sacrifice was the Victorian artist George Frederick Watts.

Watts had been advocating a memorial to remember acts of self sacrifice since 1866, but his entreaties had, on the whole, met with general, and official, indifference.

Then, in 1885, a young servant girl, by the name of Alice Ayres, had died in a fire in Union Street, Borough, having saved the lives of her three nieces.

As a result of her act of sacrifice, Alice had become a national heroin – and the image of her rescuing the three children from the blazing building was being reproduced everywhere.

A huge memorial to her had been erected to her memory in Isleworth Cemetery, paid for by public subscription.

A photo of the grave of Alice Ayres.
The Grave of Alice Ayres.


In 1887, sensing that the mood might now be right, Watts wrote a letter to The Times in which he suggested that, one of the best ways to honour Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of that year, would be to erect a public memorial that would remember acts of sacrifice by the likes of Alice Ayres.

Although his suggestion was ignored by the powers that were, it struck a chord with many of the middle classes – and with several newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Gazette, and, as a consequence, the working people came to be seen as every bit as capable of displaying bravery as their “social superiors”; and, in 1900, “Watts’s Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice” was finally unveiled in Postman’s Park.