London’s weird blue plaques - educating tourists and the public for over 150 years



The best way to see a city is to look up. Not just because it helps when crossing the road but also because architects hide obscure, beautiful and interesting things above the eyeline. Perhaps you are familiar with London’s blue Heritage plaques?


Are those the blue circular plaques on the sides of buildings all over London?

Yes...and no.

Huh?


Well, they are called blue plaques but...not all of them are blue. Or circular for that matter.


Why do the English always have to be different?

We prefer ‘innovative’.


Right. So what’s the deal with these plaques then?

Well, the first plaque, although it no longer exists, was dedicated to the famous author and poet Lord Byron in 1867 and placed on his house in Holles Street, which has since been demolished. It was later replaced on the side of a John Lewis superstore but was lost again when it was bombed during the Second World War. A further replacement was issued in 2012, however, recent research has suggested that Byron didn’t even live on Holles Street, meaning all the plaques might have been incorrect.


Huh, how...innovative.


Quite. The oldest surviving plaque was also installed in 1867 and was dedicated to the French Emperor Napoleon III.

Wait, I thought this was an English thing.

Oh no, not at all, the plaques mark historical people and locations regardless of nationality, it’s just a representation of the profound and diverse history of London. And beyond, since several other plaque heritage groups have appeared all over the UK preserving the obscure and infinitely fascinating history of the island. Although the concept was blue, born and bred in London.


So, can anyone get one of these things?

Oh no, there are rules. Which have changed over the years, you can even propose a candidate. Some of the candidate criteria includes: 20 years must have passed since their death, at least one building associated with the candidate must exist in London, the building must be visible from a public highway and no more than two plaques are allowed on one building.


Ah, gotcha so one person can’t be commemorated twice.


Well, in the name of innovation, there are some exceptions. Before the rules changed to prevent further madness, there were eighteen examples of houses with two plaques. There are even some people with more than one plaque, for example, Mahatma Ghandi has two, one at Baron Court Road, West Kensington where he was a law student and another on Powis Road, Bow.


See the proposal rules here


Other than being blue but sometimes not blue, what do these plaques look like?


Well, the official design now accepted as the ‘blue plaque style’ was developed over decades and as I mentioned before, they have gone through several designs and colours, often depending on the council or society funding the plaque. However, the design is now settled and all plaques now demonstrate the English Heritage name and logo, are 19 inches in diameter and are handcrafted in Cornwall by Frank and Sue Ashworth.



Any exceptions?


Well, yes actually. The London Underground plaques are unique. The ‘Johnston’ typeface which was exclusively developed and used by London transport in the 1930s is still used on the four London Underground plaques:


Edward Johnston – the calligrapher who gave the font its name

Harry Beck – the designer of the world famous diagrammatic tube map

Albert Henry Stanley , Lord Ashfield – First Chairman of London Transport

Frank Pick – Pioneer of ‘Good Design of London transport’



Those are some interesting folk, I think I get the idea now.


Well yeah, authors, scientists, politicians, artists, cloud namers…


Beg your pardon...cloud namers?

There are some pretty funky plaques out there. Luke Howard – Namer of clouds is certainly one, he presented his paper ‘On the modification of Clouds’ in 1803 which outlined the classification system of height and so on that we still use today. There’s also, Willy Clarkson – Theatrical Wigmaker and Mary Hughes – Friend of all in need, to name but two.



Extraordinary.


Yep, there are now over 1000 plaques in London, it makes walking around the place even more interesting. So, next time, remember to look up!

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