English Heritage blue plaques – links people from the past with the buildings of the present
Yup, I’ve glanced up at those little blue plaques on buildings in London dedicated to someone or another, think I might have even read a few…….…but it’s never actually occurred to me that there must be a story behind each and everyone of them, plus a history to the scheme itself.
Turns out in London these plaques are not always round or blue, in-fact early ones are chocolate brown in colour, some are green (come on to that later) but all celebrate links between notable figures of the past to the buildings in which they lived and worked.
Little bit of history – It is the oldest scheme of its kind in the world. Founded in 1866, there are over 900 official plaques erected in London by English Heritage (they took over the scheme in 1986) and its predecessors - The (Royal) Society of Arts (1866 - 1901), The London County Council (1901 – 1965) & Greater London Council (1965 – 1986).
The very first plaque was to commemorate the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, but this house unfortunately was demolished in 1889.
In-fact fewer than half of the earliest 35 plaques erected by The (Royal) Society of Arts in its scheme have survived. Those that did include a plaque for Edmund Burke, author & politician at 37 Gerrard Street, Leicester Square. This was re-erected in 2002 when a new building was constructed.
Napoleon III on King Street, Westminster, is the schemes earliest surviving plaque, erected in 1867. Interesting this went up when he was still alive. The criteria has since changed, the recipient must be deceased at least 20 years before they qualify.
William Makepeace Thackeray, novelist, author of Vanity Fair, erected in 1887 is another early surviving plaque. He has two other official plaques in London – guidelines have since been revised and it is now recommended that individuals should only be awarded one.
Plaques are as much about the buildings in which people lived and worked, celebrating the relationship between people and the place. A plaque is only erected if there is a surviving building closely associated with the person in question. It must be in a condition that the person would have recognised and be visible from a public highway.
Green plaques – created by Westminster City Council for the Covent Garden area, green plaques mark places of interest. One such green plaque can be found above the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, this is where actor William Terriss met his end (1847-1897), stabbed to death by a deranged fellow actor, Richard Archer Prince.
I have discovered that many other bodies such as local councils also put up commemorative plaques in London and across the UK using different criteria.
The London blue plaques scheme has been driven mainly by suggestions from the public. Nominations through English Heritage are subject to thorough historical research and discussion. Proposals maybe turned down for various reasons, for example if the connection to a surviving London building is not strong enough, also no more than two plaques can be placed on a building.
I could go on (anorak springs to mind!!!) For thoroughly interesting bite sized in-sights into the lives of individuals celebrated by plaques, I recommend looking at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/
Written by Vickie Clark, August 2020.