Alice Ayres (12 September 1859 – 26 April 1885) was an English nursemaid honoured for her bravery in rescuing the children in her care from a house fire. Ayres was a household assistant and nursemaid to the family of her brother-in-law and sister, Henry and Mary Ann Chandler. The Chandlers owned an oil and paint shop in Union Street, Southwark, then just south of London, and Ayres lived with the family above the shop.
In 1885 fire broke out in the shop, and Ayres rescued three of her nieces from the burning building, before falling from a window and suffering fatal injury. Britain, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, experienced a period of great social change in which the rapidly growing news media paid increasing attention to the activities of the poorer classes. The manner of Ayres’ death caused great public interest, with large numbers of people attending her funeral and contributing to the funding of a memorial.
Shortly after her death, she underwent what has been described as a “secular canonisation”, being widely depicted in popular culture and, although very little was known about her life, widely cited as a role model. Various social and political movements promoted Ayres as an example of the values held by their particular movement. The circumstances of her death were distorted to give the impression that she was an employee willing to die for the sake of her employer’s family, rather than for children to whom she was closely related.
In 1902 her name was added to the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice and in 1936 a street near the scene of the fire was renamed Ayres Street in her honour. The case of Alice Ayres came to renewed public notice with the release of Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer, and the 2004 film based on it. An important element of the plot revolves around a central character who fabricates her identity based on the description of Ayres on the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, with some of the film’s key scenes shot around the memorial.