London’s blue plaques – connecting the past with the present

This year sees the 150th anniversary of the London blue plaques scheme, set up to commemorate the links between notable men and women of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked (and in some cases, were born or died in) and which still stand today. Over 900 official plaques have been put up throughout Greater London by English Heritage and its predecessors since the scheme began in 1866.

The idea of erecting a plaque to commemorate the life and works of a famous person on a building in a public location was conceived by Liberal MP William Ewart, Henry Cole, an English civil servant and inventor, and the Society of Arts (now the Royal Society of Arts), which initially ran the scheme. It was later administered by the London County Council and then the Greater London Council but has been the responsibility of English Heritage since the latter’s demise in 1986.

Standard

The original plaques were blue but plaque-makers created brown, terracotta, green, bronze, lead and stone plaques early on in the scheme’s history. Various shapes, such as squares and rectangles, were also used. The blue roundel that is used today only became standard after World War II. To be ‘official’, a plaque must bear the name of one of the four successive bodies that have run the scheme.

Individuals from all backgrounds have been celebrated under London’s blue plaque scheme, including writers, artists, actors, doctors, scientists, engineers, industrialists and entrepreneurs, lawyers and politicians. The first blue plaque was awarded to the poet Lord Byron in 1867 but his house in Holles Street, near Cavendish Square, was demolished in 1889. Today the site is occupied by a John Lewis department store but a Westminster City Council plaque pays homage to Byron. The oldest surviving plaque belongs to Napoleon III, the last French emperor. The French imperial eagle is depicted on the plaque which was erected in 1867.

Only 18 London houses carry two plaques, so this is statistically unusual. Examples of double commemorations include 20 Maresfield Gardens (Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud) and 29 Fitzroy Square (George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf). Blue plaques celebrate the relationship between people and place, so English Heritage only awards them if there is a close link between a person and a surviving building. It no longer fixes plaques if the original building associated with a person has been demolished (or is changed beyond recognition) because the strongest connection between person and place will have been lost.

Significance

Blue plaques don’t carry any legal status to protect buildings but they do raise awareness of their historical significance and so can help to preserve them. For example, the homes of Oscar Wilde in Chelsea and Van Gogh in Stockwell were preserved because of the historic associations celebrated by their blue plaques. There is just one blue plaque in the City of London – except that it isn’t blue but terracotta and commemorates Dr Samuel Johnson who wrote the Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. It was put up in 1876 by the Society of Arts in Gough Square, just north of Fleet Street. Outside London, many local councils and civic societies run similar plaque schemes. English Heritage piloted a national project between 2000 and 2005 but found that other organisations were already covering much of the work, so it was decided to focus solely on London. Similar schemes have been pioneered around the world.

Nominations

The blue plaque scheme depends on nominations from the public to English Heritage. To quality, a nominee must have been dead for at least 20 years. There can only be one blue plaque per person and no more than two per building. At least one building associated with the individual must survive within Greater London (but outside the City of London, which has its own scheme). In addition, the building must exist in a form that the person would have recognised and be visible from a public highway.

Nominees are subject to strict historical research in order to be shortlisted. English Heritage’s Blue Plaques Panel of experts meets three times a year to decide the shortlist. Proposals may be rejected for several reasons, for example, if a subject is deemed to have insufficient historic significance or if there is only a tenuous connection to a London building. It usually takes two to three years from shortlisting to unveiling a blue plaque because English Heritage has to work through a shortlist and then obtain consent from the current building owners. It may also be necessary to obtain Listed Building consent. The unique blue plaques take several months to manufacture, being handmade by skilled craftspeople and kiln fired twice.

London legends

Famous London business people who are commemorated with blue plaques include Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), the writer, banker and economist at 12 Upper Belgrave Street in Belgravia. In 1860, he became editor of The Economist, a position he held until his death. His most famous work is The English Constitution, a learned account of the workings of government.

Sir Jack Cohen (1898-1979), the founder of Tesco Stores, is commemorated at his childhood home at 91 Ashfield Street, Whitechapel. Furniture designer and retailer Sir Ambrose Heal (1872-1959) is remembered with a blue plaque at The Five Court in Pinner where he lived between 1901 and 1917. The Lansdowne Club in Mayfair carries a blue plaque for upmarket department store owner Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947).

The contribution of William Hesketh Lever, 1st Viscount Leverhulme (1851-1925), who founded the soap and cleaning products company Lever Brothers with his brother James in 1885, is recognised with a blue plaque at Inverforth House in Hampstead where he lived for his entire life. He began by manufacturing Sunlight Soap and later headed a business empire with many famous brands such as Lux and Lifebuoy. He was also a noted philanthropist.

Investment bankers John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) and Junius S. Morgan (1830-1890) have a joint blue plaque at 14 Princes Gate in Kensington where they lived from 1858 onwards. An earlier banker and philanthropist, George Peabody (1795-1869), was given a blue plaque at 80 Eaton Square in Belgravia where he died.

Commemorative plaques are of interest to people of all ages and backgrounds in London, both residents and visitors. If you would like to celebrate a prominent individual who doesn’t already have a plaque, contact English Heritage.


Alexa Michel, Business Information Executive at LCCI

Leave a Reply