An urban view — 08 January 2013

PlaqueSome people like to think that spending one’s day driving a black cab around London is an interesting and fulfilling way to earn a living – it isn’t.

Apart from an interesting passenger or occasional celebrity much of your day can be tedious. One way to brighten your day is to spot blue plaques and try to identify the person to whom they were dedicated.

Take Beaumont Street and Westmoreland Street, the only time you are likely to encounter this little thoroughfare is when a member of the Royal Family is in King Edward Hospital. But as you reach the junction with New Cavendish Street there facing you is a blue plaque dedicated to ‘Vicky’, who it turns out was Victor Weisz a cartoonist. Or who would have thought the Royal dress designer Norman Hartnall lived three stories up in a small block of flats in Sussex Gardens.

Each plaque costs £965 to manufacture and erect and I read (although I can’t see how it could be) English Heritage claims they can save £240,000 over 2 years by disbanding the quango consisting of 13 members who decide who gets their name up in blue.

The blue plaques were designed by an unnamed student from the Central School of Arts and Crafts and due to the design its surface is self-cleaning.

I like the fact that areas of London whose politics are not middle-of-the-road erect their own plaques in defiance of the blue plaque quango, commemorating some left wing politicians.

The doyen of leftwing politics – Carl Marx had a blue plaque erected in Kentish Town; twice it was defaced before the resident of the property begged for it to be taken down. The Labour run GLC eventually erected another one in 1967 at 28 Dean Street.

Many commemorate less serious persons – another favourite of mine is on the corner of Englefield Street and Essex Road the home of Champagne Charlie, musical hall entertainer George Leybourne.

The plaques only commemorate the building, if that is demolished then the plaque goes too. This has saved some property from re-development. J. M. Barrie’s home at the north side of Kensington Gardens was saved. Whenever I see it you can imagine Peter Pan and Tinkerbell flying out of its bedroom window.

Many houses deserve blue plaques; they apparently don’t add value to your property, just kudos. But one street off the Strand has seen a remarkable number of persons living there deserving of blue plaques. Buckingham Street has had living there David Hume, father of the Enlightenment; Henri Rousseau, postimpressionist painter; Robert Harley, Queen Anne’s Lord Treasurer; Jonathan Swift; William Penn; painters William Etty and Clarkson Stanfield; Humphrey Davey, of miner’s lamp fame; Peg Woffington, actress (see the book I am reading); Russian Peter the Great; writer Henry Fielding; Charles Dickens; Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, believe it or not, Napoleon Bonaparte.

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Gibson

(6) Readers Comments

  1. How intriguing! Please tell us more about Napoleon Bonaparte living in London. The actress Peg Woffington has a blue plaque in Teddington, where she must have lived for a time. And a portrait in the Garrick Club

    • PS. What is the book you are reading about Peg Woffington?

      • The book is Mr. Footes Other Leg by Ian Kelly – see the sidebar for details.

    • So far the only reference I have managed to find is about Napoleon in Buckingham Street from London’s Strangest Tales by Tom Quinn. The ‘bible’ of London – The London Encyclopaedia edited by the late Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert mentioned all the others but omits Napoleon.
      Did you get my email about your great-grandfather?

  2. There are numerous spoof blue plaques as well, such as one to a deceased dog and another to a tetchy but loved pub landlord.

    There seem to be many agencies, some organized (e.g. borough councils), and others more informal, putting up plaques of various shapes and colours. English Heritage does not have a monopoly by any means. If we are to have plaques at all, I think it good to have many sources as this helps avoid bias.

    It is not quite true to say that when the building goes, the plaque goes too: many plaques say something like “X lived/was born in a house that stood near here”.

    Neither English Heritage nor any other organization can force the owners of a building to accept a plaque. Plaques can be placed only with the current owner’s consent.

    • I love all the variations of plaque. It seems a pity that a Government agency wants to leave the responsibility of erecting plaques to a charity – The National Trust. But I suppose if we at the Trust take on that task we can at least do it more economically.

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