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Meet the neighbours: A walking tour of Hampstead’s blue plaques

PUBLISHED: 18:12 20 February 2015 | UPDATED: 18:38 20 February 2015

The Romantic poets flocked to visit poet Joanna Baillie at Bolton House in Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton

The Romantic poets flocked to visit poet Joanna Baillie at Bolton House in Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Nigel Sutton

Everyone knows that Hampstead is a hotbed of celebrity homes, but look closely at the blue plaques on many of the houses and you can find out more about the illustrious neighbours of yesteryear. These notes and the map will provide a fun tour of the area and help newcomers and longterm residents alike find out more about its history.

The plaque commemorating poet and dramatist Joanna Baillie at Bolton House in Hampstead. Picture: Nigel SuttonThe plaque commemorating poet and dramatist Joanna Baillie at Bolton House in Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Joanna Baillie (1762–1851), poet and dramatist

Bolton House, Windmill Hill, NW3 6SJ

One of the first women to be commemorated with a plaque, Joanna Baillie was one of the founding members of the Hampstead Public Library (opened in 1833 at 65 Flask Walk) along with artist John Constable.

The playwright and poet was born in Scotland to a family who could trace their lineage back to the Scottish patriot William Wallace. Her uncles, Williams and John Hunter, are best known today as the founders of the Hunterian Museums in Glasgow and London.

In her day, the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Byron and Keats each made the pilgrimage to Bolton House, her residence in Hampstead and her peers, the poets Anne Bannerman, Sir Walter Scott, Anna Barbauld and Hector Macneill celebrated her in verse.

Her friend and admirer, the novelist, playwright and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), thought her the best dramatic writer since Shakespeare, writing that “Stratford Upon Avon’s swans think Shakespeare lives again”.

Baillie lived in Hampstead with her sister until the end of her life and was buried nearby Constable in Hampstead Parish Churchyard.

In her letters to prospective house guests, Baillie wrote: “I hope you will come early enough to have a ramble on the Heath before dinner,” and, “our dinner hour shall be half past five, and if you are disposed to walk on the Heath, come to us as early as you please.”

The chocolate-brown memorial tablet was erected in 1900 by the Society of Arts.

Sir Rowland Hill brown plaqueSir Rowland Hill brown plaque

Sir Rowland Hill, K. C. B. (1795–1859), originator of the Penny Post

Royal Free Hospital, Pond Street Hampstead, NW3 2QG

Sir Rowland Hills saw the benefits of modernising the postal service and his ideas were supported by the campaigner and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Henry Cole, who also originated the idea of sending Christmas cards and lived nearby on Elm Row.

Hill’s father, Thomas Wright Hill, was a schoolmaster who saw progressive education as an answer to social problems and in 1827, aided by three of his brothers, Hill extended the family’s experiments in education by opening the Bruce Castle School in Tottenham.

Later Hill became frustrated as a schoolmaster and started looking for other avenues to achieve social progress and personal advancement.

In 1837 he published the first edition of Post Office Reform: Its Importance And Practicability, proposing a more efficient communication; back then, recipients of a letter paid for postage based on the number of sheets the letter contained and the distance it had travelled. There were also three delivery services operating in London.

Hill wanted this clumsy arrangement changed and proposed a system of standard prepayment for letters regardless of distance, later refining his ideas with the solution: postage stamps.

By January 10, 1840 – the inauguration of the penny post – Hill had become a nationally celebrated figure and he was knighted in 1860 for his contribution to postal reform. After his death, his property was incorporated into the North Western Fever Hospital, which was replaced by the Royal Free in 1975.

Blue Plaque to Sir Ronald Fisher at Inverforth HouseBlue Plaque to Sir Ronald Fisher at Inverforth House

Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890–1962), statistician and geneticist

Inverforth House, North End Way, NW3 7EU

When Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher’s epoch-making book, Statistical Methods For Research Workers, was published in 1925, it didn’t receive a single favourable review. By the time of his death in 1962, the work was in its 14th edition and had been translated into six languages.

Fisher was a lifelong devotee of pipe-smoking, incredibly untidy and in his professional life coined the terms and phrases ‘variance’ and ‘test of significance’.

He was friendly with the biologist Sir Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous and became an advocate for the tobacco industry after retiring.

Born in the family home in East Finchley to a father who was fine art dealer a partner in a firm of auctioneers whose reputation rivalled Sotheby’s and Christie’s. As a result of his success, he moved the family to this stunning Hampstead residence, Heath House, in 1896. Set in five acres of parkland and gardens, there were ponies for the children and a goat-chaise they drove round the grounds.

A maths prodigy, Fisher lost his mother to acute peritonitis when he was only 14, and within 18 months his father lost ‘the lot’.

The grand Heath House, now known as Inverforth House, was promptly sold to the soap magnate William Lever and the family moved to unfashionable Streatham. The house’s gate-piers sport two English Heritage plaques, both erected in 2002, one to Fisher and one to Lever.

Knighted in 1952, Fisher is remembered as the most significant British statistician of the 20th century.

The blue plaque commemorating Sir Roland Algernon Penrose and Lee Miller in Downshire Hill. Picture: Nigel SuttonThe blue plaque commemorating Sir Roland Algernon Penrose and Lee Miller in Downshire Hill. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Lee Miller (1907-1977), photographer

21 Downshire Hill, NW3 1NT

As a photographer, Lee Miller captured and recorded some of the most iconic and important images of the 20th century. As a surrealist, her friends, admirers and collaborators included artists Man Ray, Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso, who immortalised her in a number of his famous works.

In 1937, she attended a surrealist costume ball in Paris where she met an English painter dressed as a tramp. He was Roland Penrose, who later became her husband. Their house, at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, played host to a variety of colourful characters, including “Cambridge spies” Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

MI5 even kept a file on Miller, who was suspected of being a communist. But she was later exonerated despite “wearing queer clothes, liking queer food and having queer friends”.

Elizabeth “Lee” Miller was born in New York. Her father Theodore taught her photography, and after a chance encounter with Condé Nast, Miller’s career as a fashion model took off. She was arguably the world’s first supermodel - until her image was used to endorse Kotex sanitary towels, ending her career in scandal.

After D-Day, as an accredited war correspondent, she followed the advance of the American army across Europe and, during the liberation of Paris, photographed Picasso and many other art world figures. Present at the liberation of four concentration camps, her images of Buchenwald and Dachau shocked the world.

Having witnessed so much pain and pointless destruction, she fell into a long period of depression and alcohol abuse but reinvented herself as a gourmet cook in the 1960s and featured in several magazines.

She died of cancer at Farley Farm in Sussex in 1977.

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