A few weeks ago I wrote on Postmans Park – The Memorial To Heroic Self-Sacrifice and I’d taken it upon myself to look some of the names whose valour has been memorialised her. At random I picked the unassuming sounding Alice Ayres.
I picked Alice in particular because I’m familiar with Union Street in Borough, it being one of the roads that Crossbones Cemetery is bounded by. It is also very close to another of my favourite places in Red Cross Gardens and is in the very heart of Dickensian London and the terrible squalor that was found all around .
Alice Ayres was one of the first to be commemorated at Postmans Park. She was a “gentle and quiet-spoke” nursemaid who lived in Southwark, London, looking after the young children of her older sister Mary Ann when in April 1885 Victorian England had been gripped by descriptions of the 25-year-old’s heroism after fire broke out at the property.
The events of this calimoutous event was recorded in terrible detail by such publications as the Illustrated Police News which carried the report below 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.
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.
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 from the window for a few seconds, and it was then seen that she was pushing feather bed through the window.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.”
It is thought that by the time Alice decided to save herself that she was so overcome by the smoke that she slipped half-conscious from the window, hitting a shop sign on the way down and slamming into the pavement.
Despite Queen Victoria herself sending a lady-in-waiting to get updates on the young woman’s condition, she died days later of her injuries, with her last words being reported as “I tried my best and could try no more”.
“Not one woman in a thousand would have shown the silent abnegation and practical pluck of Alice Ayres,” recorded one typically sentimental Victorian newspaper account. “When the moment arrived, the lofty, brave soul in her which had done its simple duties rose to heroic heights.
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.”
A public subscription was set up and very quickly reached the princley sum of over £100 which in current money would be £10,000. Inspired by the recent installation of Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the River Thames, an Egyptian styled oblesisk was commissioned to stand on her grave at Isleworth Cemetery and 140 years later it is the grandest memorial in the entire graveyard.
The text on the memorial reads:
Sacred to the memory of ALICE AYRES, aged 26 years, who met her death through a fire which occurred in Union Street, Borough, the 24th of April, 1885 A.D.
Amidst the sudden terrors of the conflagration, with true courage and judgement, she heroically rescued the children committed to her charge. To save them, she three times braved the flames; at last, leaping from the burning house, she sustained injuries from the effects of which she died on April 26th 1885.
This memorial was erected by public subscription to commemorate a noble act of unselfish courage.
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
Along with figures such as Grace Darling, Alice Ayres was part of a trend in society of recognising the achievements and value of working class figures and their plight was part of the ongoing recognition that it wasn’t just the Establishment that had worth as society and modern moral values evolved to create what we might call the beginnings of the Welfare State under the administration of Prime Minister David Lloyd George a decade or so later.
The bravery of Alice Ayres was cherised by Victorians for many decades and was the subject of literature and poetry. In 1936, the newly elected Labour run London County Council changed the name of White Cross Street to Ayres Street in memory of Alice.
Bizarelly, the 2004 film Closer which stars Natalie Portmans, features a character that uses the name of Alice Ayres having seen her memorial at Postmans Park.
The building which was the scene of the fire is understandably no more but has been rebuilt on the same spot. Fittingly, the building over the road from the site is now a major building for the London Fire Brigade.
I didn’t expect the research to be so rewarding. It’s fascinating how subjects in two of my favourite walks come together in this way and how though the events are largely forgotten through the centuries, we can still get a glimpse of the past in our every day lives if we look hard enough.
If you enjoyed this post then you might want to check my older post on my favourite Victorian Heroine, Grace Darlimg or indeed on another groundbreaking Victorian lady, Mary Seacole: The Greatest Black Briton To Ever Live.