Wandering around London, you’re likely to see blue spotted roundels stamped to buildings adorned with strange names and old dates.
These plaques commemorate events that took place in those areas, or to memorialise people who ate, breathed and slept in the rooms and corridors inside.
Nearly 900 plaques honouring notable men and women can be found in the capital today.
Taking inspiration from London, cities in other countries like Paris and Rome, have started their very own blue plaque projects. Last year, a number of contenders made the cut for a plaque including Margaret Lockwood, Flanders and Swann, The Cooper Car Company, Peter Cushing, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, and John Thelwall. Margaret Lockwood was one of Britain’s biggest film stars in the 1940s. She was nominated for a BAFTA for her performance in Cast a Dark Shadow (1955). The Cooper Car Company, popularly known for their production of the Mini Cooper, also won the 1959 and 1960 Formula One World Championships. Sir Hugh Calrton Greene was recognised for modernising the BBC as its Director General between 1960-1969, and is also the brother of prominent novelist, Graham Greene.
Blue Plaque history
Initially, the plaques were brown and the first one was placed on a deserving building in the capital in 1867. London County Council then took hold of the scheme, changing the colour to an azure blue. English Heritage finally took over the project in 1986 and still decide on who’s worthy of a place today.
English Heritage commissions Frank Ashworth to make the plaques while his wife Sue inscribes them at their home in Cornwall.
The specific criteria for getting your name slapped to a city wall are as follows:
The public suggests names.
The person must have been dead for twenty years.
It must be a surviving building (no demolition sites).
The person has to be recognisable in their field of work.
They must be a “proper” Londoner, meaning they must have worked in London for
a significant time, or in a time of importance
The person must be considered significant by their peers.
A panel of nine scholars from various fields then oversee the process, undertaking research to validate the claim, and later the plaque is erected. It can take up to three years for experts to decide. There are, however, exceptions to the rule. Napoleon the III – the oldest plaque to survive – was put up when he was Emperor of France in 1867. Now, the criteria are somewhat rigid and if you haven’t contributed to London, you’ll struggle to get a place.
Although, the scheme doesn’t discriminate on the nationality of the people it awards, it wasn’t until 1954 that the first plaque representing an ethnic minority was put up. Mahatma Gandhi was awarded a place in … 90 years after the project started.
Women are only represented on 14% of the plaques, something that the charity has spoken about in recent times and has asked for the public’s input.
It says that women only receive a third of the nominations, and now encourages more nominations for its ‘Plaques for Women’ campaign.
According to an article by CityMetric (Nov 2018), the highest number of plaques dedicated to one name goes to John Wesley who was the 18th-century founder of Methodism with 47 plates. Charles Dickens follows him with the 43. Queen Victoria is the top woman plaque scorer with 14.
Here are a few interesting stories behind some of the city’s blue plates:
1) The site where the first bomb fell on London (Grove Road, Mile End)
The arrival of the V1 – also known as the doodlebug or buzz bomb – marked a sinister new phase in the war for London. It destroyed houses in Antill Road and Burnside Street, and the
train line from Liverpool Street to Stratford. It killed 6 people and injured 42. A plaque was put up first in 1985 and stolen a few years later in 1987. It was then replaced the next year.
2) Plaque of Fanny Burney (11 Bolton Street, Mayfair)
Fanny Burney’s plaque is the oldest surviving plaque commemorating a woman. Her novels led to great acclaim in the late 18th century. She influenced novelists such as Jane Austen who actually used her writing to influence her own in Pride and Prejudice leading to her being described as the mother of English fiction by Virginia Woolf.
3) The Bloomsbury Group, an LGBT+ representative (Gordon Square, Camden)
The London-based ‘Bloomsbury Group’, which included people like Virginia Woolf and the economist John Maynard Keynes, were a group of Cambridge-educated men who sought to break out of the mould of Victorian morals that landed Oscar Wilde in prison.
For their time, they were liberal in their politics and personal relationships. Both Strachey and Keynes had numerous homosexual affairs – with each other, with Duncan Grant, with Woolf’s brother Adrian, and with men entirely unconnected to the group. They lived in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury before the outbreak of the First World War. Their refusal to conform to the moral standards of society has been seen as a precursor to the gay movement of the 1960s.
4) Alfred Hitchcock (153 Cromwell Road, South Kensington)
The famous horror director is known for his impressive collection of movies, such as ‘Psycho’ and ‘Vertigo’. He lived in South Kensington from 1926 to 1939, which is when he directed ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’. By 1940, he had moved out and flown stateside to make his first Hollywood movie, ‘Rebecca’.
5) Kathleen Godfree (55 York Avenue, East Sheen)
Kathleen Godfree was an accomplished skater, golfer, and cricketer and is known for winning five medals at two Olympic Games. This record has never been broken but was equalled by Venus Williams in 2016. She was part of the golden age of British tennis, sharing a 1926 doubles cup with her husband, Leslie (1885–1971), the only married couple
to have ever won the title.
5) Karl Marx (Dean Street, Soho)
Karl Marx had a plaque put up for him in 1937 at his final address in Chalk Farm but was taken down after it was repeatedly vandalised.
The then owner of the house declined another go at erecting the plaque and the house was later demolished. But another one, marking one of his earlier lodgings in Dean Street, Soho, was unveiled in 1967. Even then, the plaque wasn’t welcome.
Explore London like a tourist
English Heritage has a comprehensive site about all the stories and histories of the plaques. There are also tours and walks offered by companies to go visit them. An app, Blue Plaques of London, is available for free on both the Android and iOS play stores, and also
lists guided walks.