You may be familiar with the sight of “blue plaques” on properties, but have you ever wondered how the blue plaque scheme originally started or what these markers actually mean?
What is the blue plaque scheme?
The scheme celebrates the links between notable historic figures and the buildings in which they lived and worked, as well as famous events or previous buildings on the site.
There are specific criteria for a blue plaque to be erected in your honour. You don’t have to be British but (with a few exceptions) you do have to have excelled at what you did, be recognisable to the common person, all the while contributing to the happiness of mankind. In order to guard against celebrating ‘celebrity’, you must also have been dead for over 20 years or have reached at least the age of 100.
Places can also be recognised – although the criteria for these are perhaps slightly contentious. For instance, the site of The Clink (most notorious medieval prison between 1151-1780, when it was burnt down by rioters) has receiving a plaque in Southwark.
Another blue plaque (which is black) celebrates the house that was featured on the album cover of David Bowie’s 1972 record album, Ziggy Stardust.
Who gets a blue plaque?
Around a hundred new contenders for the plaque who have been nominated by the public are considered by a panel every year. From these, a third are put forward for further consideration by a panel of researchers to verify that the nomination is suitable for the award. Then there is the added problem of getting permission to erect the award from the property owner and local council.
Despite this scrutiny, mistakes have sometimes been made – including the false celebration of No.7 Craven Street, initially thought to be the home of Benjamin Franklin, but later corrected to No.36. One reason for this type of error is the Victorian habit of renumbering the houses on London’s streets.
On occasion, more than one plaque has been erected to the same person, including Charles Dickens. He had a tendency to move home regularly and has three plaques in his name, although in practice one is preferred. There is a limit of two plaques on any one building.
Blue plaques have been instrumental in the conservation of historic buildings, in particular the more attractive of modest private houses in which the notable person may have been born or grew up.
It is sometimes the case that the current owner of the house refuses to allow a blue plaque to be erected, perhaps not welcoming the fame and attention intended for the plaque’s recipient. There are also those who have tirelessly campaigned for the award of a plaque, in some cases (wrongly) believing a plaque may protect the property from developers.
Do blue plaques represent history?
The short answer is no. Until very recently, few plaques have been erected for women or non-white people.
What are the scheme’s origins?
The blue plaque scheme was the initiative of William Ewart MP, and was adopted by the Society of Arts (later to become the Royal Society of Arts) in 1866. The first two plaques were erected a year later, one to commemorate the birthplace of the poet, Lord Byron, and the other dedicated to Napoleon III. The latter is the oldest blue plaque still in existence, after Byron’s house in Cavendish Square was demolished in 1889.
Fewer than half of the 35 plaques erected by the Society of Arts over 35 years survive.
London City Council took on the scheme from the beginning of the 20th century and erected almost 250 plaques before the body was abolished in 1965. Its successor, the Greater London Council, erected 262 plaques before English Heritage took over in 1986. English Heritage continues to run the scheme, and has added a further 360 plaques, to date.
There are now over 900 blue plaques across London. Thirty four official plaques were erected when the scheme was briefly trialled outside the capital, but several UK-wide local councils, civic societies and other organisations have initiated similar ‘unofficial’ schemes and others exist around the world.
Why aren’t all blue plaques blue?
While commonly known as “blue plaques”, as adopted by English Heritage, they come in a variety of colours, designs, shapes and materials. Indeed the City of London has only one plaque – and it’s brown.
Each of the scheme’s sponsors has had an opinion on how the plaque should represent them. The Society of Arts chose brown, which was changed by LCC to a variety of styles including bronze and sepia. The GLC went for the round blue plaque that English Heritage have continued to use to this day.