As Nelson Mandela is laid to rest this weekend in what’s expected to be the largest state funeral in history, Waterside man Albert Smallwoods will recall fondly the day he and fellow members of the Order of St John shared the privilege of his company at a ceremony in St James’ Palace.
Albert travelled to London nine years ago to become only the second man from the city to be invested as a Knight of the Order of St John.
During the ceremony the assembled Dames and Knights got the shocks of their lives when the world icon and past-President of the Republic of South Africa appeared to be invested as a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St John.
Albert recalls: “Now we all sat in rows of seats and when our turn came we stepped out into the aisle and you went forward and you kneeled on one knee on a stool and the Duke of Gloucester who was the Grand Prior of the Order brought the sword down on your shoulders three times. But Nelson Mandela was very, very frail and when his turn came he simply was brought in from a side door. He wasn’t sitting in the main room.”
He explained: “He couldn’t kneel to get the sword so he stood and the Duke of Gloucester stood up and brought the sword on his shoulder and he put the medal around his neck and his gown...around him. He stood, stepped back and bowed to the Duke and turned around and went out through a side door and completely disappeared, where the rest of us were able to join and have tea and meet each other afterwards.”
Although Albert didn’t get a chance to meet Mr Mandela, sharing that ceremony was something he’ll never forget.
“It was a wonderful occasion and I often thought of it over the past six to nine months of the year when he’s been very ill. My memory always goes back to that occasion whenever we were in the same company at the same function.”