150th Anniversary of the English Heritage’s Blue Plaque Scheme

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It requires imagination to bring the past to life and Blue Plaques are a tangible and authentic medium that achieves this. They are an appropriate, artistic memorial to great people and more easily seen than headstones. They have long graced the buildings in London which are the homes of the great. The idea has been copied all over Britain and overseas. Blue Plaques bring personality and history to our neighbourhoods. It is exciting to see where great people resided and wonder how much the area has changed since their time. The Plaques encourage us to find out more about the people they commemorate. They bring emotion to a building and make it historically attractive. They are a very personal memorial, dealing with reputation and making you feel part of London’s Heritage. Blue Plaques not only adorn prestigious houses in Mayfair, Chelsea and Westminster but are often found in humble suburbs.

The Blue Plaques are actually artworks, made of glazed clay. Incidentally, they are lighter at the back to facilitate fixing to the walls. Being dome shaped they stay clean. They are round and some have decorations around the statement of name, dates of birth and death, occupation and period of residency. The earlier plaques were rectangular.

In 1863 the radical MP, William Ewart, proposed in Parliament that there should be memorials on houses of famous people. The Royal Society of Arts implemented this idea in 1866. Lord Byron’s house in Holles St was the first to have a plaque ( chocolate in colour ).  The house and plaque did not survive. Napoleon III’s in King Street, St James’s the oldest surviving plaque. The London County Council changed the colour of Plaques to blue when they took over in 1921. The Greater London Council ran the scheme from 1965 to 1985. They were succeeded by English Heritage. 

The earlier plaques were mostly for men; Kings, statesmen, generals and politicians reflecting the contemporary attitude of the day.  Later, more women, artists, actors, playwrights, footballers and pop stars were honoured, including members of ethnic minorities.

Anyone can put a name forward to be honoured, but, the procedure is very strict. Candidates must have been dead for twenty years or more, and have given a real benefit to humanity. Also, they  must have lived in the building for a significant period of time and made an important achievement there. A short list is made. If not accepted the candidate cannot be submitted again until ten years have passed. Serious research is carried out and the worthiness of the candidate is checked in depth.

The house where the candidate lived must not have changed or been rebuilt.

In 2013, due to withdrawal of funding, the scheme was in danger of closing. There were personality problems on the Committee in 2014. English Heritage overcame financial problems, and now the scheme depends on funding, from donations via the Blue Plaque Club and the public, and generous private support provided by David Pearl.

During the 150th year anniversary several new blue plaques will be erected, including: Tommy Cooper, Elizabeth David and Samuel Beckett and others will be honoured. Beckett’s plaque was recently unveiled in 48 Paultons Square, Chelsea, where the playwright is sharing a “double plaque” with eminent physicist Patrick Blackett who also lived in the address.

There will be special walking tours, a series of talks and a Blue Plaque telephone app will be created.

English Heritage is partnering with ‘ Product of Your Environment’ on a new range of fine bone china dinner plates replicating Blue Plaques of famous people. Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock are included.

In September, English Heritage will publish the first official guide book, featuring a short history of the people honoured by Blue Plaques in London.

 

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