They are intriguing blue roundels of history that have spread across London’s buildings and landmarks for more than 150 years; each one a celebration of a notable life, and each one connected at birth, as it were, to Belgravia.
Because the Blue Plaque scheme – the oldest such memorialising scheme in the world – was first mooted by MP and Belgravia resident William Ewart, a reformist whose successes include the abolition of capital punishment for stealing cattle and the founding of public libraries, no less. In 1863 he asked his fellow MPs in the House of Commons whether “it may be practicable to have inscribed on those houses in London which have been inhabited by celebrated persons, the names of such persons.”
The Royal Society of Arts took the initiative. The first plaque, to Lord Byron, was installed in 1867 on the house believed to be his birthplace (demolished 1889) where the John Lewis Oxford Street store currently stands. The second plaque installed in 1867 memorialising French Emperor Napoleon III at 1c King Street survives to this day; the only plaque to have been installed while the subject was still alive and kicking, and an unusual early blue example. Initially manufactured by Minton, the prohibitive expense of the earliest blue encaustic pottery ensured that terracotta plaques were the norm until 1921.
Nearly 1,000 plaques are now dotted throughout the capital, spinning an interconnecting thread between pioneers, spies, rock gods, poets, scientists, suffragists, and the wonderfully whimsical ‘name of clouds’, meteorologist Luke Howard. Most fittingly, William Ewart is memorialised in Eaton Place by the very scheme he proposed.
Administration of the scheme passed from the RSA to London County Council, then Greater London Council, before English Heritage took over in 1986. The selection process is based entirely on nominations from the public, something that English Heritage senior historian, Howard Spencer, says grew spontaneously. “We get around 80 to 100 valid suggestions per year and many more enquiries, and that’s something that has grown more or less organically, I don’t think the LCC ever put out an appeal or anything like that, people just started writing in with their ideas.”
Only 12 plaques are put up a year, following a review of nominees by an independent panel of 12 who then advise who to shortlist. All nominees must have been deceased for at least 20 years, and the building must still be considered recognisable to the nominee. “It is a selective and competitive process,” says Howard. “These are the resources we have and we can’t do more than that, plus there’s a thing of not wanting to overdo it – you could have too much of a good thing, potentially. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re really sort of top slicing this and highlighting the most interesting connection between building and that person, which is what the plaques are really about.”
Shortlisted names get more detailed research, where all possible London addresses and potential drawbacks to commemorating the individual are considered. A location and inscription for the plaque is signed off by the panel, and at that point the building owner is approached. Only after owner approval is the plaque commissioned.
Howard concedes that the digitalisation of resources has proved invaluable for research and reviving older cases that had previously met dead ends. The plaque for Charlie Chaplin was revived after he was found on the 1901 census. “When I went into it further, I found five addresses we could have possibly put a plaque on,” says Howard. “Eventually we plumped for the place he lived at prior to going to America.”
Ian Fleming’s Ebury Street flat was chosen after the owners of his former marital home in Pimlico declined a plaque. Similarly, the owners of the now demolished mews house at 4 Cadogan Lane where Judy Garland died declined a plaque several times.
In the 1930s, the owners of a house where Karl Marx’s plaque stood declined a third plaque after the first two were vandalised, reputedly by fascists.
“It is unusual to get flat refusals,” says Howard. “When we do get that, it’s usually because people are worried about elements of privacy I think, but then it’s even rarer to get people who actually give reasons. The bigger problem in seeking permission is actually in getting a reply. For a lot of buildings in central London that have become commercial buildings, it’s often very difficult to find a decision maker.”
Redressing the balance
Despite the unsexist language used by William Ewart, few early plaques reflected women’s achievements. The first was to actress Sarah Siddons, later demolished, and the earliest surviving plaque commemorates the writer Fanny Burney in Mayfair.
A campaign to redress the balance in 2016 has since ensured that the panel now shortlists more women than men. English Heritage recently announced plaques for six women in 2021, including the anti-slavery campaigner Ellen Craft; barrister Helena Normanton: social reformer Caroline Norton; fashion designer Jean Muir; scientist and crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, and Diana, Princess of Wales on what would have been her 60th birthday year, at the flat she lived in while working in Pimlico prior to her marriage.
Once commissioned, plaques are handmade as slipware, by one of two artisans, either on a wheel in Chepstow or in a mould in Fowey, Cornwall. The process can take up to seven weeks for each plaque. Normally embedded into a building, once installed, plaques are maintenance-free, being slightly domed so rain and dirt runs off them. They can be manufactured for surface mounting if there are constraints such as cavity walls. Production was halted during the First and Second World Wars, although an exception was made in the spirit of wartime alliance in 1942, when a plaque to Vladimir Lenin was unveiled, but was later lost to demolition.
While nominations for politicians are declining in numbers these days, Belgravia’s plethora of plaques includes several politicians and no fewer than four Prime Ministers, including Neville Chamberlain (37 Eaton Square), Lord John Russell (37 Chesham Place), Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (6 Grosvenor Place) and Stanley Baldwin (93 Eaton Square).
Writers Vita Sackville West and James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming have plaques in Ebury Street, Alfred Lord Tennyson (9 Upper Belgrave Street), Frankenstein writer Mary Shelley (24 Chester Square) and poet and critic Matthew Arnold (2 Chester Square).
There are also plaques for composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (80 Ebury Street), actress Dame Edith Evans (109 Ebury Street), Vivien Leigh (54 Eaton Square) and Field Marshal Viscount Gort VC, Commander-in-Chief at Dunkirk (12 Belgrave Square), among many other notable residents.
Howard’s personal favourite in Belgravia is a plaque to composer Felix Mendelssohn (4 Hobart Place); one he personally revived after discovering it was mysteriously shelved following initial approval nearly a century earlier in 1907. “We live in a world of 24-hour news and constant, churning movement and I do quite like the idea that we’re working on something where the outcome’s pretty long term and things can take a while,” he says.