Blue Plaques have played an important role in the history of the conservation movement. The scheme pre-dates the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (founded in 1877) and the National Trust (founded in 1895). It has been responsible for raising awareness about many of London’s buildings and, in some cases, saving them from demolition.
In the 30 or so years that the Society of Arts managed the scheme, 35 plaques were erected. Today, less than half of these survive. Survivors include commemorations of John Keats, W. M. Thackeray and Edmund Burke. The Society’s plaques are easily recognisable because of their intricately patterned borders, containing the words ‘Society of Arts’.
Interestingly, there are no English Heritage plaques in the square mile of the City except one to Dr Johnson in Gough Square. This is due to an agreement between the Society of Arts and the Corporation of the City of London in 1879, which established that the latter would erect plaques in this territory. This agreement still stands.
Benjamin Franklin, David Garrick and Lord Nelson were among the first to be considered for a project that aimed, in the words of a correspondent from the Times, to make ‘houses their own biographers’. The Society of Art’s first plaque commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square in 1867.
Sadly, this house was demolished in 1889. The earliest Blue Plaque to survive, also erected in 1867, commemorates Napoleon III on King Street, Westminster.