Last year, all of our favourite celebrities died. This year, we found out they were all terrible people. In this post-Weinstein, post-Paradise Papers world, it seems no one’s safe from public recrimination, not even the Queen.
Spare a thought then, for the panel at English Heritage, a group of historians and public figures who decide who gets comemmorated forever with one of its famous Blue Plaques. These ceramic, embossed discs are designed to last as long as the historic buildings they’re embedded into and they’re pretty hard to remove in the event of a public disgracing, according to senior Blue Plaques historian Howard Spencer.
“They’re inset into the buildings – you can do it, but it’s an expert job,” he laughs. “It hasn’t come up for our scheme, but it has for other schemes elsewhere in the country.”
Part of the reason public scandal may not have arrived at English Heritage’s door is because there is a strict set of criteria – and in some cases decades of agonising – over who is lauded on the front of the capital’s buildings.
Historians of the arts, sciences, literature and business, as well as prominent media figures like former Football Association chairman Greg Dyke and Royal Television Society president Sir Peter Bazalgette, preside over hundreds of nominations submitted by organisations and members of the public, granting only 12 Blue Plaques a year on average.
This is partly because of admin – the freeholder has to give permission and an increasing amount of London property is owned by a company or fund – and due to limited resources, as the plaques are paid for through private donations.
English Heritage became a charity in 2015 following cuts in public funding in 2013-14. But the plaque scheme predates English Heritage itself, having been first suggested by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863.
The first plaque was put up in 1867, to Lord Byron on Cavendish Square, but the house was demolished some 20 years after, meaning the oldest surviving plaque actually hails a Frenchman, Napoleon III, outside his residence on King Street in Westminster, which “says it all, really,” says Spencer.
“The scheme’s always reflected London’s status as an international city. I think it was Disraeli that said, ‘London offers a roost to every bird.’ And there are a large number of plaques to people who sought refuge in London from various forms of persecution abroad, Napoleon being one himself.”
Last year, Spencer edited “The English Heritage Guide to London’s Blue Plaques”, a definitive guide with an accompanying app that charts all 900-plus plaques throughout the city, to celebrate its 150th anniversary. As far as the organisation is aware, the Blue Plaques scheme is the oldest systemised comemmoration programme in the world. Similar memorial schemes exist abroad – and in lots of major UK cities – but nothing with quite the same rigour, variety and scope.
Much has been made in recent years about the price premium a property could command for bearing a Blue Plaque, but estate agents remain sceptical. “Fundamentally, the plaque itself doesn’t add anything tangible to the property and as such should never be considered as a reason to add value,” said Philip Eastwood from Knight Frank when Margaret Thatcher’s former residence in Chester Square was put on the market last year.
“What is more likely is that having a Blue Plaque will increase the level of interest in a property, generate more viewings and, potentially, achieve a quicker sale. Although this depends to some extent on who the former resident was; Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher, for instance, I am sure would generate more interest than Harry Beck [creator of the schematic Tube map].”
Richard Gutteridge, head of Savills’ office on Sloane Street, agrees: “There’s certainly something romantic about owning a property that sports the badge. But while a Blue Plaque makes a property stand out from the crowd and can create a favourable impression, it’s difficult to isolate any value it might add. Buyers are fascinated by houses with history and, if they’ve fallen for one, they might be prepared to pay a small premium, though a huge celebrity may cause concerns about living on a tourist trail.”
There’s also the added hassle that comes with a rare controversial plaque. Oscar Wilde was awarded his in 1954, only for someone to throw a pot of paint over it. The British Union of Fascists vandalised Karl Marx’s plaque on Maitland Park Road twice during the 1930s and the owner refused to have it installed a third time.
It was erected again on Soho’s Dean Street in 1967 – a couple of storeys above the ground this time – to the displeasure of the then-owner of legendary restaurant Quo Vadis on the ground floor, who remarked that his customers were “nobility and royalty – and Marx was the person who wanted to get rid of them all!”
Generally speaking, though, homeowners are thrilled to have a Blue Plaque, hoping some associated prestige will rub off on their humble abode. Importantly, the plaque doesn’t confer any statutory protection over a building, which can still be demolished or altered according to standard planning permissions.
This is why only half of the original 35 plaques commissioned by the Society of Arts survive today. If a Blue Plaque building is demolished, English Heritage simply finds a new building with connections to the person and reinstalls it.
But while a Blue Plaque makes a property stand out from the crowd and can create a favourable impression, it’s difficult to isolate any value it might add
While it doesn’t give any official protections, the plaque does imbue the building with a “soft power”, as Spencer explains: “The one that’s often cited is Charles Dickens’, which is on what is now the Dickens Museum on Doughty Street. That plaque went up in 1903, but at the time Georgian terraces were not well regarded. People were very rude about them and said they were boring, all these long streets with sash windows.
They were taking down whole terraces without much thought, so you can see how the Dickens House could have been one of those. Now, the whole terrace is Grade II Listed except for Dickens’ house, which is Grade I Listed. So that’s the extra boost the association can have for a building.”
The colour scheme has been fairly consistent from the beginning, with the earliest plaques painted the familiar blue. However, the colour was deemed too expensive to reproduce at scale, so for a time subsequent plaques were painted a chocolate brown by pottery firm Minton, Hollins & Co.
It continued to manufacture the plaques after the scheme was taken over by London County Council in 1901, which added a triumphant laurel wreath around the border. The Roman symbolism implies that the award is an honour, something put into writing in the 1950s when the criteria stated that all recipients should have made “a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness”.
That’s why you won’t find Reggie Kray or Guy Fawkes on a Blue Plaque, although curiously, there is one on a former hayloft in Paddington where the Cato Street Conspiracy was cooked up to assassinate Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s entire cabinet in 1820.
After a hiatus during the First World War, the plaques were taken up again by Doulton in 1921, returning to the original blue after a report stated it was the colour most likely to stand out on a London street. In 1938, the modern design – 19 and a half inches in diameter, two inches thick, name in capitals followed by a slightly larger surname, date of birth and death, profession or accomplishment, then the person’s relationship to the building – was created by an unnamed student from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1938, who was paid just four guineas for their work.
When English Heritage finally took the scheme over in 1987, it employed Frank and Sue Ashworth of London Plaques, who produce them to this day.
While the plaques themselves may have changed, the strict criteria remain. Aside from the ‘positive contribution’, the nominees must have been dead for 20 years, giving history time to re-evaluate their worth. German composer Felix Mendelssohn had to wait 104 years for his Blue Plaque; it was approved in 1909, but the owner of the building declined to have it installed and it was only reevaluated in 2013.
“When the panel has declined particular cases, it’s not uncommon for them to come back to them again later,” says Spencer, citing author Wilkie Collins, whose books were deemed “not of a high order” in the early 20th century, but earned him his plaque in the 1950s.
Some statesman, such as Gladstone and Palmerston, have multiple plaques, some shared with other politicians, so there’s now a ‘one plaque per person’ rule. The strength of the connection between person and building is also important. Birthplaces and retirement homes are often passed over in favour of a building where the recipient was “most active”.
Seminal French philosopher Rousseau was denied a plaque because he’d only stayed at the building in question for a fortnight. “You‘re effectively transforming this building into a personal monument to somebody, and you don’t want to do that on the strength of them just passing through.” A pedant may, in this case, point to Mozart’s plaque, on Ebury Street in Belgravia, where he stayed for just a month.
“But then again, it is Mozart,” Spencer says. “He’s a very big name, and he did write music there, so it is a balancing act.” Location is important, too; passersby and superfans have to be able to find the building, so it can’t be hidden away in a ‘gated community’ or in a cul-de-sac up an enormous hill, either.
As the scheme enters its next half century, there have been discussions about how it can become more diverse and representative. Less than four per cent of plaques are dedicated to black and Asian historical figures. It took nearly a century for the first plaque to be awarded to a member of an ethnic minority, Mahatma Gandhi, in 1954. Women have had a slightly better time of it. Writer Fanny Burney has the oldest surviving plaque dedicated to a woman – erected in 1885 – but women still only feature on just 13 per cent of Blue Plaques.
As it’s a public nomination scheme, English Heritage can only encourage people to suggest more diverse candidates. It launched an appeal for more female suggestions during Women’s History Month last year and it’s set up a working group led by panel member Augustus Casely-Hayford to nominate more BAME figures.
“The variety of people commemorated has gone up a great deal,” says Spencer. “The proportion still isn’t brilliant, to be honest, but it’s gone up.”
Among the occupations, there has been a significant drop in the number of politicians nominated, but there are now two footballers on the honour list, Laurie Cunningham and Bobby Moore, who was Barking & Dagenham’s first recipient. Now there are only two boroughs, Havering and Hillingdon, that are bereft of Blue Plaques.
Though the scheme has played a significant role in preserving London icons and the buildings they lived in over the last century and a half, ultimately it’s up to us to decide who stays etched in our city’s streetscape and who fades into the mists of time.