Londoners mourn the death of a young hero
Should there be a new memorial for ordinary heroes? Tributes to the bravery of Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole continued to pour in yesterday, prompting a debate about how to remember him.
It was late on Friday night, and 20-year-old Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole was heading home with his friend Bernard Kosia after their evening’s work at a West End restaurant. As they reached London Bridge, two men told them that a woman had just fallen into the river. It was too dark to see her, but they could hear her shouting: “I’m dying! I’m dying!”
Folajimi did not hesitate. Together with one of the other men, he plunged into the Thames. But though police and coastguard boats arrived in time to pull the woman and her rescuer from the water, there was no sign of Jimi. It was six o’clock the next morning when his body was finally found washed up on the shore.
One word has recurred in the many tributes paid to the young man known to everyone as Jimi. “He is a hero, and always will be,” said his father, Michael Adewola. “I can’t bring him back but I want him to be remembered forever for what he did. It was just like him to want to always try and help others.” The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, called Jimi “a true hero of our city”.
Michael Adewola added that he wanted the government to honour Jimi. A campaign is now underway to have his bravery recognised with a posthumous George Cross. But others believe that it should be marked by something more publicly visible.
London already has a Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, in Postman’s Park near St Paul’s Cathedral. Dating from 1900, it consists of a 50-foot wooden loggia sheltering a wall on which 54 ceramic tablets are hung. Each commemorates an act of heroism, sometimes involving several people.
The memorial was the idea of the Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederick Watts, who particularly wanted to commemorate Alice Ayres. The 25-year-old had been working as a nursemaid for her sister and brother-in-law when a fire broke out in the oil and paint shop beneath their home in Southwark. Alice managed to save her three nieces from the blaze, only to fall to her death from a window.
Others remembered on the tablets include Thomas Simpson, who died of exhaustion “after saving many lives from the breaking ice at Highgate Ponds”, and 17-year-old Elizabeth Boxall, who was fatally injured while trying to save a child from a runaway horse.
The youngest is eight-year-old Henry James Bristow, who died trying to save his sister when her clothes caught fire.
But the memorial was never completed, and work on it stopped in 1931, with room left for another 67 tablets. Since then, only one has been added – to 30-year-old Leigh Pitt, who died in 2007 while saving a boy from drowning in a canal.
Should there be a new memorial for ordinary heroes?
Some say, yes. Ordinary heroes are inspiring people who bring out the best in the rest of us, and it is important to be reminded of their example. The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice has not fulfilled Watts’s vision, and in any case, has no place for those who risked their lives and survived. It would be better to create a new monument in a more prominent place.
Others argue that the essence of ordinary heroes is that they are indeed ordinary and never wanted to be considered special. Those who want to set them apart contradict this by implying that they are in some way superhuman. If there really is a demand for a memorial, it should focus on refurbishing and updating the existing one as Watts would have wanted.
- Many have died trying to save others from drowning. Should swimming lessons be compulsory at every school?
- Should every front-line worker in the pandemic be described as a hero?
- In pairs, research the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Choose one of the incidents mentioned on the tablets, then write and illustrate an imaginary newspaper report on it.
- As a class, make a list of heroes to be remembered on a memorial at your school. Decide what form it should take and write a citation for each of them.
Some People Say...
“True heroism… is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost.”Arthur Ashe (1943 – 1993), American tennis player
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that public monuments can play a vital role as places for people to mourn and honour the dead. The unveiling of the 9/11 Memorial in New York, bearing the names of almost 3,000 victims of terrorism, was an important part of the city’s healing process. Even memorials which include no actual name, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, can be tremendously powerful.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around what makes a hero. We generally associate heroism with spectacular acts of courage carried out in the spur of the moment, but it can be argued that those who accept danger as part of their daily lives – such as firefighters or front-line workers coping with the pandemic – are equally heroic. In his memoir I Was a Stranger, General Sir John Hackett maintains that civilians working for the Resistance in World War Two were braver than the soldiers fighting in it.
- London Bridge
- A succession of bridges have been built on the same site since Roman times. The most famous, built in stone between 1176 and 1209, had a drawbridge and shops and houses on it.
- The second longest river in Britain, after the Severn, it runs for 215 miles from Gloucestershire to the sea.
- The Thames has had a police force since 1798, 30 years before a land-based equivalent was created.
- Something occurring after death. One of the main characters in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline is called Posthumus, because his father died before he was born.
- Postman’s Park
- Made up of three former burial grounds, it acquired its name because the headquarters of the General Post Office was built next to it.
- A covered outside gallery.
- George Frederick Watts
- The artist was best known for allegorical paintings such as Hope, and portraits. He was married to the greatest British actress of the age, Ellen Terry.
- Alice Ayres.
- The tablet in her memory helped to inspire Patrick Marber’s play Closer, and is featured in the film version of it.
- The oldest part of south London. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims set off from one of its inns, The Tabard.