On the Secret London Tour we make a stop in the wonderful Postman’s Park to admire one of the City’s most poignant memorials, the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.
The walls of this memorial are lined with tiles, each of which remembers an ordinary man, woman or child who, in saving the life of another human being, sacrificed their own life.
To read the brief descriptions of the individual acts of sacrifice is a truly moving and inspiring experience.
THE INTREPID CONDUCT OF ALICE AYRES
One of the memorial tiles remembers a young girl by the name of Alice Ayres who, “BY INTREPID CONDUCT, SAVED THREE CHILDREN FROM A BURNING HOUSE.”
It goes on to say that the act of saving the children was “AT THE COST OF HER OWN YOUNG LIFE.”
THE STORY OF ALICE AYRES
Many newspapers reported on the death of Alice Ayres, amongst them The Illustrated Police News, which carried the following article in its edition of Saturday 2nd May 1885:-
EXCITING SCENE AT A FIRE IN SOUTHWARK
HEROIC CONDUCT OF A SERVANT GIRL
FIVE LIVES LOST
On Friday morning South London was the scene of a calamitous fire, which resulted in the loss of five lives, and more or less serious injury to a woman and three children.
The fire occurred at the corner 0f Gravel-lane and Union-street, Borough.
A few minutes after two o’clock the house and shop, 191, Union-street tenant by Mr. H. Chandler, an oil and colourman was seen in flames.
Mr. Chandler lived with his wife, four children, and a servant named Alice Ayres, and before twelve o’clock at night the whole family retired to bed.
The servant would appear to have been the first to be awakened by the crackling of the flames, for almost simultaneously with the raising of the alarm by the police, Ayres appeared at the front window screaming for help.
ESCAPES AND ENGINES SENT FOR
Messengers had been dispatched to fetch the fire-escapes and to call the firemen, but although the neared escape station was only as far distant as the Blackfriars-road, outside the Surrey Chapel, and there was not the slightest delay, the rapidity with which the fire spread rendered it necessary for desperate measures to be taken if the inmates were to be saved.
ALICE APPEARS AT THE WINDOW
Some people in the street shouted to the girl to jump, and held out come wearing apparel to break her fall.
With marvellous presence of mind Ayres disappeared front the window for a few seconds, and it was then seen that she was pushing feather bed through the window.
SHE SAVES THE CHILDREN
Directly those below caught the bed it was stretched out by a dozen willing hands, and in a short time Ayres was seen at the window with a girl three years old in her arms.
She was shouted to that “all was right,” and without hesitation, but with great care, she through the child well onto the bed.
Twice again she appeared at the window with girls of four or five, and threw them out of the window; but it was evident that the suffocating fumes of the smoke and the heat were affecting her, for her aim in the last two cases was less steady, and those below had difficulty in catching the children, but they reached the ground with little injury.
Then the brave girl herself was implored to jump, and she sprang out, but evidently in a state of extreme nervousness.
The crowd gave a cry of horror when it was seen that the poor young woman had missed the bed, and had fallen with a terrible thud upon the ground. She was picked up insensible, and placed in a cab for removal to Guy’s Hospital. It was found that her spine was injured and no hope was entertained of her recovery.
The whole of this scene was enacted in about five minutes, and in the meantime engines from Waterloo-road, Kennigton-lane, and Southwark Bridge-road had arrived, while, directly afterwards the escape made its appearance.
TO ENTER WOULD BE CERTAIN DEATH
Ere this, however, the whole building was a mass of flame, and it was obvious that any attempt to enter it would be certain death.
The firemen were informed by the neighbours that Mr. and Mrs. Chandler and their little boy were still inside, but the only answer which could be returned was that if anyone was there they could not be alive, and that it would be madness to enter.
THE FLAMES EXTINGUISHED
The fierceness with which the fire burst out of the house would not even allow of the escape being pitched against the upper windows, and the firemen had to content themselves with pouring water upon the flames until the fire was extinguished.
THE BODIES FOUND
This task was accomplished about three o’clock, and then, as soon as the place had cooled sufficiently, the firemen entered and searched for the dead bodies.
The charred remains of the woman and her child were found near a window, and it was evident that they were endeavouring to make their escape when the fumes from the burning shop overcame them.
The body of Mr Chandler was found upon the stairs, and it would seem that in the earlier part of the outbreak he must have been aroused and gone down stairs to save his valuables, for his cash-box was found close to him.
THE OFFICIAL REPORT
The official report of the occurrence, drawn up by Captain Shaw C.B. is as follows:-
“Call at 2.10 am (Friday), to 191, Union-street, Borough, to the premises tenanted by H. Chandler oil and colourman and owned by the Charity Commissioners.
Cause of fire and insurance effected unknown.
Damages, a shop and house of six rooms and contents very severely damaged by fire and water, and a part of the roof destroyed.
Henry Chandler, Mary Ann Chandler, and Henry Chandler, aged respectively thirty-six, thirty eight, and seven years, burnt to death; Alice Ayres, aged twenty-six years, severely injured by jumping from second-floor window; Elizabeth Chandler, aged three years, burnt on legs and taken to hospital; Edith Harriet Chandler, aged five years, and Ellen Atholl Chandler, aged four years, slightly injured; 192, ditto G. Parish, lodger, front of building and front room on second floor and contents damaged by fire and water rest of building slightly by smoke and water; No’s 221, occupied by R. D. H. Gaunt, druggist, and 223, Hand and Flower public-house, owned and occupied by R. H. Donegan, licensed victualler, fronts scorched and window glass damaged by breakage; 77, Gravel-lane lane, ditto, G. H. Hall, undertaker, building an contents damaged by heat, smoke, and water.”
ELIZABETH CHANDLER DIES
The child, Elizabeth Chandler, died in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The young woman, Alice Ayres whose conspicuous deeds of bravery in connection with the fatal fire were recorded, died on Sunday morning in the ward of Guy’s Hospital.
Captain Shaw, a few hours previously, had had reported to him the death at St. Thomas Hospital, of Elizabeth Chandler, the child three years old, who, with two others, was thrown out of the window.
Five deaths have thus resulted from this fire.
The other children are progressing favourably.”
THE FUNERAL OF ALICE AYRES
The St James’s Gazette reported as follows on the funeral of Alice Ayres on the 5th May 1885:-
“The funeral of the late Alice Ayres, who distinguished herself so nobly and lost her own life at the fatal fire in Union-street, Borough, last Friday week, took place yesterday afternoon at Isleworth Cemetery.
Miss Ayres, it will be remembered, died in Guy’s Hospital, whence her body was conveyed to the home of her parents at Magdala-terrace, Isleworth.
At 2.30 P.M. the cortege started on foot for the cemetery at that place. The coffin was carried from the house to the grave by sixteen firemen, who relieved each other in sets of four.
On reaching the church at the cemetery a very impressive service was held, and a noticeable feature was the presence of twenty girls in white from the village school which the deceased herself had attended as a girl.
It had been arranged that these young people should have followed the coffin and sung at the graveside; but this was unfortunately prevented by a severe hail-storm which came on just as the service in the church was concluding.
A large assemblage of persons from the village and from London, however, saw the coffin lowered to its last resting-place.
The coffin was covered with wreaths of flowers, and bore the inscription—” Alice Ayres, died April 26, aged twenty-six.”
AN INSPIRATIONAL FIGURE
Alice Ayres remained a hugely inspirational figure throughout the latter years of the 19th century and her sacrifice was instrumental in the establishing of the memorial that now adorns Postman’s Park.
Remembering her death 9 years later, The Canterbury Journal waxed lyrical as it informed its readers:-
“…after lingering for two days, she died – died in physical agony indeed, but in great peace of mind, cheered by the thought of the little innocent lives she had rescued; cheered, also, during her last moments by being made aware of the hearty sympathy which her brave deed had called forth.
She died early, but she had not lived in vain.
Her example is one of the thousands of daily proofs which present themselves to us in the history of mankind that there is a latent power of heroism in the hearts of myriads who live unnoticed and die unknown.
THERE ARE ANGELS AMONG US
There are angels among us in human guise, though we never see the waving of their wings. There are saints among us, it has been said, though no tablet marks the houses in which they have lived, and no lamp marks their windows for a shrine of pilgrimage.
But God knows them, and occasionally -to shew us how little we need despair of human nature – for one day, or one hour, or one moment of that mortal life, He makes them known to all the world.
So, should you make the journey to Postman’s Park, and should you stand alongside and read the very matter-of-fact plaque that remembers Alice Ayres – and the others whose acts of self sacrifice are remembered here – keep in mind the simple thought that everyone of these people was just an ordinary person, until, that is, they stepped forward and went to the assistance of others without considering their own safety and, in so doing, showed themselves to be nothing short of extraordinary people.