Blue Plaque Scheme - A Brief History
1866~1901 The Royal Society of Arts (RSA)
The Blue Plaque Scheme was first raised in the House of Commons on 17 July 1863 by William Ewart, who proposed inscribing "on those houses in
London which have been inhabited by celebrated persons, the names of such persons".
On 6th August 1864 'A London Wayfarer' wrote to 'The Builder' in support of Ewart's idea, emphasising the "duty which the society of the present
generation owe to the next and succeeding ones". Another correspondent felt that marking "in a permanent manner" the houses of notable persons
would be "the means of saving many a relic which will otherwise be ruthlessly swept away".
The Scheme was founded a few years later in 1866 by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) so that the plaques might give pleasure to "travellers up and
down in omnibuses" and that they "might sometimes prove an agreeable and instructive mode of beguiling a somewhat dull and not very rapid
progress through the streets".
The persons to be commemorated with "memorial tablets" should have "made some important positive contribution to human welfare and happiness"
and must "deserve national recognition".
1901~1965 London County Council (LCC)
The London County Council (LCC) inherited the scheme in 1901. The then serving Clerk, Sir Lawrence Gomme, who was a vital figure in the early
history of the scheme, encouraged the LCC to see them as "one of the most important matters in which the council, under the powers of two Acts of
Parliament authorising such work, can with advantage take action". Adding that although the inherited list had "some remarkable omissions", it could
be "taken as a nucleus for the Council to work on".
The scheme gained a democratic base after Gomme further recommended that "a register should be kept of suggested houses, including therein any
suggestions from members of the Council or the public press or which might occur to myself or to the librarian in the course of investigations into the
history of a particular locality".
The first Chairman of the LCC Lord Rosemery gave three reasons why the LCC would continue the scheme: first, that the tablets added to the
amenities of London streets by calling attention to houses or places with interesting associations; second, that they provided the means of honouring
famous Londoners or famous visitors to London; and third, that they could give accurate information about London History based on official records.
Sir Howard Roberts later added a fourth in 1954: the presence of a tablet can serve as an incentive to the preservation of buildings of historical interest
threatened with demolition.
Gomme predicted that the work on the 'Survey of London' in 1910 would provide "a systematic, if slow and piecemeal, topographical survey of houses
with historical associations".
1965~1986 Greater London Council (GLC)
The Greater London Council (GLC) inherited the scheme in 1965.
1986~present English Heritage (EH)
English Heritage inherited the scheme in 1986 after the abolition of the GLC, by which time 530 plaques had been erected. The LCC maintaining the
plaques "have proved their value" adding the 'twenty-year' rule stating that the person must have been dead for twenty years or have passed the
centenary of their birth., thereby ensuring the person's name and reputation will stand the test of time. English Heritage receives about a hundred
suggestions for blue plaques each year, nearly all from the members of the general public. If you want to propose a plaque yourself the English
Heritage selection criteria are persons should:
- Be regarded as eminent by a majority of members of their own profession or calling.
- Have made an important positive contribution to human welfare or happiness.
- Have resided in London for a significant period, in time or importance, within their life and work.
- Have had such exceptional and outstanding personalities that the well-informed passer-by immediately recognises their names.
- Deserve Recognition.
The minute you arrive and settle into London you become a Londoner and the broad range of persons remembered says as much about the hospitable
nature of London as it does about the people that have sought refuge in it throughout the centuries. Benjamin Disraeli famously once described London
as a 'roost for every bird' and that still holds true today.
The sculptor Sir William Reed Dick wrote in 1953, "in their full range these plaques build up a many-sided picture of the city's achievements, bringing
home to one a more complete idea of the activities of different ages. Buildings are, after all, more than just bricks and mortar: they are the theatres in
which our lives are enacted".
Sources and Recommended Reading
The above extracts and quotes have been taken from two highly recommended books: Lived in London: Blue plaques and the stories behind them. By
English Heritage. Edited by Emily Cole with a forward by Stephen Fry; and The London Blue Plaque Guide. By Nick Rennison.
It is hoped that this website, and future smart-phone application, will compliment the research already performed by many a scholar in producing
books not unlike Lived in London, which Stephen Fry described as "a perfect companion for anyone who has ever looked up and wondered..."