When you are walking around London look out for Blue Plaques on buildings. They mark the buildings were a notable person lived or worked. The first one was erected in 1875, commemorating Lord Byron, it was put up by the Royal Society of Arts, later the authorising of Blue Plaques passed to London County Council and its successor the Greater London Council and now English Heritage is in charge. Around 20 new plaques are added each year. 20 years has to have passed from the death of the person or a hundred years has to have passed from their birth. London has the highest number of Blue plaques,around 950, but you can find them all over the country.
Lord Byron’s house was demolished in 1889 and his plaque is now on the John Lewis Department store which stands on the site but it is not the original plaque so the oldest surviving plaque still in situ is the one on the house where Napoleon III lived. He was Napoleon I’s nephew. He was exiled from France after the Battle of Waterloo, on his return to France in 1840 he was imprisoned for life but managed to escape and fled to England taking a lease on this house. He was fully welcomed into London society. He later returned to France as was crowned Napoleon III. His plaque is the only one to have been installed during the lifetime of the person commemorated. If you book my St James’s walking tour I will show you where it is.
Since the early years of the 20th Century the public has been able to put forward the names of those considered worthy of a Blue Plaque and the Blue Plaques Panel, a collection of experts in a wide range of fields, makes the final decision. The Plaques commemorate people who have achieved a wide variety of impressive human endeavours, there are many politicians, statesmen, artists, theatrical people, musicians, writers and scientists and inventors as you might expect but there are also some rather more unusual reasons for commemoration recorded on some London plaques. There’s Luke Howard, the Namer of Clouds ( he named the three principal categories of clouds – cumulus, stratus, and cirrus), there’s Willy Clarkson, theatrical wigmaker, Joseph Grimaldi, King of Clowns, and Edward Johnston, Calligrapher who gave his name to the Johnston typeface which was developed for London transport in the 1930s and still used by Transport for London its successor.
It has been found that the presence of a Blue Plaque doesn’t actually add to the property’s value although it does make a good topic of conversation over dinner and it does increase the interest in a property when it is for sale as people like a sense of history. Blue Plaques have also played a role helping to protect buildings under treat of demolition. The homes of Oscar Wilde in Chelsea and Van Gogh in Stockwell, for example, were preserved because their Blue Plaques drew attention to their historical association.
Some houses have more than one plaque. Chatham House boasts not just one Prime Minster but three. William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelite artist and Cetshwanyo king of the Zulus lived at different times in the same house in Holland Park as did George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf in one in Bloomsbury. There are 18 houses in London with two plaques.