Celebrating the people with a place in history with blue plaques

More than 800 official “Blue Plaques” have been put up across London, connecting illustrious individuals with the buildings they lived or worked in.

From TE Lawrence (of Arabia) (1888-1935) to the founder of Macmillan Cancer Support, Douglas Macmillan (1884-1965), the scheme’s selection criteria aims to include those of eminence and those who contributed outstandingly to the well being of their fellow man. Artists, architects and athletes, campaigners and caricaturists; engineers and inventors, Chancellors, Kings and Prime Ministers have all been honoured.

Juliette Sonabend, plaque coordinator of The Heath & Hampstead Society, which has put up approximately 30 memorials, says she has “forever been fascinated with history and celebrating those who have shaped the locality.”

“From those who have changed the way we think, to those who have changed the way we shop… from John Constable (1776-1837), the artist, to John Lewis (1836-1928), the draper, Hampstead has provided the home they sought.’’

Celebrating the lives and work of outstanding individuals has been an age-old way of immortalising them.

Historically statues have been the most common form of paying tribute. However, the idea of erecting “memorial tablets” in London was first proposed by William Ewart MP (1798-1869) in the House of Commons in 1863.

He suggested inscribing “on those houses in London which have been inhabited by celebrated persons, the names of such persons”.

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For Ewart, ‘The places which had been the residences of the ornaments of history could not but be precious to all thinking Englishmen.’

He reminded the House “how rich the metropolis was in such associations”, and emphasised how desirable it was that “some record should be placed upon the respective localities”.

Ewart’s plaque was erected in 1963 in Belgravia, almost 100 years since he first spoke of his idea in the House of Commons. It simply reads: Reformer.

In 1866 the Society of Arts (later Royal Society of Arts) founded an official scheme which was the first of its kind in the world. It has since been copied by numerous cities.

The first plaque to be installed was to the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) in 1867 but the building was demolished only 20 years later. The oldest surviving plaque commemorates Napoleon, in King Street, SW1.

Various bodies have managed the 150-year-old scheme but since 1986, English Heritage has taken responsibility.

The earliest plaques were initially blue, as they are today.

However, the manufacturers – Minton, Hollins & Co. – found it difficult and expensive to produce in blue and favoured a chocolate hue colour. The form, design and manufacture of the plaques developed over the years, with experimentation until the 1920s.

Plaques were made in bronze, stone and lead. Some were designed as squares or rectangles, and colour varied between blue, chocolate, sage and terracotta. Eventually blue became the standard and Doulton the producer.

The first plaque of this kind was for the landscape painter John Constable in 1923. Since 1981 independent craftspeople have been responsible for production. “Many of the plaques are beautiful objects in themselves, but their crucial function is to mark interesting associations of person and place”, said Howard Spencer, an English Heritage Blue Plaques historian.

There is even a plaque featuring Chinese characters in St James Gardens, W11, to Lao She, the Chinese writer.

The selection process begins with nominations mostly taken from suggestions made by the general public.

Certain criteria must be fulfilled. For example, “a figure must have been dead for 20 years, or have passed the centenary of their birth and be considered eminent by a majority of members of their own profession or calling and have made an important positive contribution to human welfare or happiness.”

A panel of adjudicators discusses each case and “it usually takes between four and six years from the initial proposal of a blue plaque – if successful – to its installation.”

English Heritage receives about 100 suggestions each year.

Plaques both official and unofficial not only commemorate people but also the significance of buildings, bomb sites and fictional characters: Alexandra Palace, for television in 1936; Railway Bridge, Bow, for the first flying bomb in 1944; and 221b Baker Street for Sherlock Holmes.

The comedian Willie Rushton (1937-1996) has a Comic Heritage plaque in Mornington Crescent Tube station in recognition of the game played on the comedy radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue!

Stephen Fry, panel member for English Heritage, said: “Blue Plaques pierce windows through the modernity of our sweaty, suffocating and congested 21st century, windows through which we can see history alive with us… what else connects people with the past so completely?”