A History of Blue Plaques

A History of Blue Plaques

A History of Blue Plaques

The renowned Blue Plaques scheme came about in 1863 when William Ewart MP proposed it to the House of Commons. The idea gained immediate support and was taken up by the Society of Arts (later to become the Royal Society of Arts) in 1866.


Bedford Square in Bloomsbury is home to no fewer than eight Blue Plaques

Bedford Square in Bloomsbury is home to no fewer than eight Blue Plaques.

Early Days

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.

Plaque to W.S. Gilbert

The Plaque to W.S. Gilbert at 39 Harrington Gardens, South Kensington

London County Council takes over

At the turn of the century, London County Council (LCC) took over the scheme. It became known as the ‘Indication of Houses of Historical Interest in London’, a name it held onto until the Second World War.

The LCC formalised the selection criteria and the plaque design, once it had experimented with a few colours and decorative schemes. It kept the Society of Art’s roundel but adopted a laurel wreath border and the LCC’s title. Both can be seen on the plaque to W.S. Gilbert at 39 Harrington Gardens, one of the most striking buildings to receive a plaque.

The LCC’s first plaque commemorated the historian Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay in 1903. Another early LLC plaque is Charles Dickens’s on Doughty Street, which pre-dated the opening of his house as the Dickens Museum – and probably helped to preserve it. The council put up an average of eight plaques each year up to the First World War. Despite the suspension of the scheme between 1915–19 and 1940–7, plaques continued to be unveiled at a regular pace. By 1965, when the LCC was abolished, it had been responsible for the creation nearly 250 plaques.

The Blue Plaque commemorating the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1821

The Blue Plaque commemorating the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1821

Greater London Council gets a turn

The aims and workings of the scheme remained broadly the same under the Greater London Council (GLC) although it broadened the range of people commemorated. Events at historical buildings were also marked – one example being the former hayloft in Paddington where the Cato Street Conspiracy to murder Lord Liverpool’s entire cabinet was hatched in 1921.

Figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst, campaigner for women’s rights, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer of the ‘Song of Hiawatha’, and Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse and heroine of the Crimean War, were commemorated by some of the 262 plaques that were erected during the GLC’s time.

Geographically, the GLC also covered a wider area than its predecessor, unveiling plaques in uncharted territory such as Richmond, Croydon and Redbridge.

A Blue Plaque to John Lennon is unveiled at 34 Montagu Square in 2010 by his widow, the artist Yoko Ono

A Blue Plaque to John Lennon is unveiled at 34 Montagu Square in 2010 by his widow, the artist Yoko Ono

English Heritage takes it on

English Heritage took over the scheme in 1986 and has run it along similar lines to its predecessors ever since. The first plaque it erected was in that year, commemorating the painter Oskar Kokoschka at Eyre Court on the Finchley Road.

We have since erected over 360 plaques, bringing the total across London to more than 880. We’ve also set up the Blue Plaques Panel, which advises on the selection of individuals and brings a variety of expertise to each case.

English Heritage continues to broaden the coverage of the scheme, both geographically – there are now plaques in all but three of London’s boroughs – and in terms of the figures being recognised. Recent commemorations have ranged from the football manager Herbert Chapman to Dame Maud McCarthy, a pioneering nurse in the First World War; from Alan Turing to the guitarist and songwriter Jimi Hendrix.

Hendrix is one half of what is probably the most famous Blue Plaque juxtaposition of all, alongside George Frideric Handel on Brook Street, Mayfair. ‘To tell you the God’s honest truth, I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff,’ was Hendrix’s reported comment regarding his neighbour.

Former cabinet minister Tony Benn unveiled the plaque to Krishna Menon, campaigner for Indian independence

Former Cabinet Minister Tony Benn unveiled the plaque to Krishna Menon, Campaigner for Indian Independence

The Future

An exciting programme of shortlisted figures, the continuous arrival of new suggestions, and enthusiastic support from fundraising and the general public, all mean that the Blue Plaques scheme finds itself in rude health on the cusp of its 150th anniversary.

Look out for our 2016 Blue Plaques programme celebrating this major milestone in the history of the scheme – and the many new plaques we’ll be unveiling this year, as we count down to it.

Further Reading

In 2009, English Heritage published the first comprehensive history of and guide to the scheme, with Yale University Press, titled Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them.

‘A comprehensive and elegantly written guide to just about everyone who was anyone … beautifully presented.’ The Times

Other titles exploring the history of the scheme include:

Rennison N, The London Blue Plaque Guide (Stroud, 2009, 3rd edition)
Sumeray D and Sheppard  J, London Plaques (Oxford, 2009)
Sumeray D, Track the Plaque: 32 Walks Around London’s Commemorative Plaques (Derby, 2003)
Dakers C, The Blue Plaque Guide to London (London, 1981)

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