Why all the fuss over London’s Blue Plaques?

London’s famous blue plaques connect the people of the past with the buildings of today. Currently run by English Heritage, the London blue plaques scheme was started in 1866 and is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the world.Across the capital over 900 plaques on buildings honour the notable men and women who have lived or worked in them.

History Of The Plaques

In 1863, the MP William Ewart put the idea of the commemorative plaque scheme to the House of Commons. Three years later the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) erected two plaques in 1867.
The first commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, in 1867, but the building was demolished in 1889. Thus the plaque to Napoleon III on King Street, Westminster, also erected in 1867, is the earliest to survive. In the time that the Society of Arts managed the scheme, it put up 35 plaques.

In the early 1900’s, London County Council (LCC) took over the scheme and formalised the selection criteria more extensively. In 1903, the LCC’s first plaque was given to the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay.

The design of the plaque, had many variations with different colours and decorative ideas tried, but by 1921 the blue ceramic plaques had become standard. In 1938 the modern more simplified blue plaque was designed by an unnamed student at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and remains the current standard. The council put up an average of eight plaques each year until 1914. Despite the suspension of the scheme during both world wars, plaques continued to be unveiled. By 1965, when the LCC was abolished, it had been responsible for creating nearly 250.

Greater London Council (GLC), LCC’s successor, not only broadened the range of people commemorated but covered a wider area. It unveiled plaques in areas such as Richmond, Croydon and Redbridge. Between 1966 and 1985, when the GLC was abolished, it put up 262 plaques, commemorating figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst, campaigner for women’s rights, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer of The Song of Hiawatha, and Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse and heroine of the Crimean War.

In 1984 artisan ceramicists Frank and Sue Ashworth of London Plaques were appointed to make the blue plaques, and they have been doing so ever since.

1986, was a turning point for  English Heritage, as it took over  the scheme and also erected its first plaque for the painter Oskar Kokoschka at Eyre Court on the Finchley Road. Since then it has put up over 360 plaques, bringing the total across London to more than 900. A Blue Plaques Panel advises on the selection of individuals and brings a range of expertise to each case.

How well do you know London’s Blue Plaques? Take the quiz here.

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