The writing is on the wall
How do you know you have made it, like, really made it? Seeing your name up in lights? 10,000 Instagram followers? Or maybe you have your own late night chat show? Yet none of these compare to a round, ceramic, blue plaque screwed to the outside of your old home. Not that you would ever know. Because you have to be dead for 20 years before you are even considered worthy. You must have also achieved significant standing in your chosen field that deserves national, if not international recognition.
William Ewert, a Liverpool born Liberal MP devised the scheme in 1863 to mark the place that linked a location with a famous figure or event. And is believed to be the oldest such scheme in the world. It was first instigated by the Society of Arts (later to be known as The Royal Society of Arts). Although they pepper London and beyond, less than half of the 35 blue plaques initially put up survive. Incidentally Ewart was also the main driver behind public libraries paid for by public funds.
The oldest ceramic blue plaque still attached to its original wall is to Napoleon III the French Emperor who resided at Kings Street in St James. Although, the first one revealed was to Lord Byron. The original building where it hung was demolished and John Lewis now stands on the site so the original sign is gone. (Blue plaques are only allowed on the original buildings) But John Lewis department store have erected a green plaque to the poet. Hopefully he would see the funny side as his plaque says ‘Always laugh when you can, as it is cheaper than medicine’.
There are close to 900 blue plaques across London, this doesn’t include the City of London as they have their own scheme, as do many other parts of Britain. Wolverhampton alone has over 90 plaques commemorating everything from the country’s first traffic lights to Emma Sproson or Red Emma, a leading light in the suffragette movement. Blue plaques are also spotted in Ulster, where amongst others is a blue plaque to Chaim Herzog the 6th President of Israel who was born in Belfast. Gateshead has blue plaque to commemorate that Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, the inventor of the incandescent lightbulb lived in Underhill; which incidentally was the first house in the world to be lit by electricity.
In Portsmouth Rudyard Kipling writer of The Jungle Book and Poet Laureate lived in Southsea. Derby is proud of their famous son, Sir Henry Royce the joint founder of RollsRoyce whilst Roald Dahl has at least 6 peppered around South Wales and Somerset.
The good and the great of the world have had their name put on a Blue Plaque. From Bernado O'Higgens the liberator of Chile, Karl Marx, Lenin and JFK. To those who stood against the system like Prince Peter Kropotkin, man who thought up the theory of Anarchy.
Throughout its earlier years the design, colour and shape have changed. Brown was used a lot as it was cheaper than the blue to manufacture. But some designs were made of stone, bronze and even lead. In 1901 London County Council (LCC) took over the reigns from the Royal Society of Arts. They kept the round shape and decided to make them uniformly blue but added a laurel wreath and the LCC logo.
In 1921 the glazed ceramic was approved as the base for all forthcoming plaques and made by Doulton from 1923-55. And in 1938 an unknown student from Central School of Arts and Crafts proposed the blue plaque we know and love today. Simpler in design, easier to read and more space for the inscriptions. A design icon was born. History on a wall. With a name, date and occupation or achievement that told an intriguing story in the simplest of terms.
Take Luke Howard. 1772-1864. Namer of Clouds lived and died here. What wonderful thoughts go through your mind when you read this. Who wouldn’t want to know more about the man who gave us the nomenclature of clouds, who resided in Tottenham. Or Joseph Grimaldi. Clown. Lived here 1818-1828. Exmouth market must have been a fun place to be with him as a neighbour. And maybe William Bligh. 1754-1817 Commander of the ‘Bounty’, a whole story told in such few words and letters.
Maybe our favourite blue plaque neighbours are the musical clash of Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel. Who lived on 23 and 25 Brook Street in Mayfair respectively. Jimi replied when asked about his once famous musical neighbour, ‘To tell you the God’s truth, I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff’. As Jimi was keen on setting his guitar on fire I am surprised he hadn’t heard of ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ by Handel but as most guitar fans see Jimi as a god maybe Handel’s Messiah was written in anticipation of his famous neighbour moving in.
The responsibility moved to the GLC in 1965 who erected over 200 plaques until the GLC was disbanded in 1985. Then English Heritage took and erected over 300 more. A sorry day came when in 2013 English Heritage suspended proposals due to cuts in their funding. Luckily they reversed the decision in 2014 and started taking submissions again.
Just so you know, the general public can nominate a blue plaque recipient and that a board of 9 eminent judges debate and cajole over who will be honoured and who will not. If the nominated are refused they will only get a second chance after 10 years. As I said at the start it is a real sign you have made it, once you have your name on a ceramic, round, blue plaque. And if you happen to own a property that has a blue plaque adorning its facade, (even if you've never heard of the previous inhabitant) then the chances are your house is worth considerably more than your next door neighbour's who don't have one.
Finally in a turn of fate, William Ewart has also been honoured with his own blue plaque in Hampton. Although we would have found it more serendipitous if it said ‘WIlliam Ewart 1798-1869. Originator of the Blue Plaque lived here’ instead of ‘Promotor of public libraries’. A trick missed.
Below you'll find a few tools to start you in the right direction to getting your own blue plaque. They say a worker is only as good as the tools they use, so use the best tools you can. Whether you are an aspiring writer, a budding artist or late developing wunderkind musical saw musician.