In England, we’re big fans of tradition. Whenever that be putting on jubilant parties to celebrate Patron Saint’s days or stubbornly sticking to slightly more quirky practices, such as eating hot cross buns at Easter, we’re quick to remind ourselves of the quirks of British Culture even when we’re not sure how or why they’re in place. The Blue Plaques are a similar thing; we take them for granted, but how exactly did the whole of the country, and indeed the world, get into the habit of commemorating historical markers?
The Blue Plaque scheme first began in the 19th century in 1863 when it was proposed to the House of Commons by William Ewert PM and civil servant Henry Cole. As such, it is one of the oldest schemes of its kind in the world. The idea was later taken up by the now Royal Society of Arts (a body of notable fellows who find resolutions to the challenges of society) and erected its first plaque in 1867 to commemorate Napolean III. These early plaques were actually a chocolate brown, as making the colour blue was difficult to produce!
At the turn of the 20th century, the London County Council (which was the local government body for the County of London at the time) took charge and made the scheme much more focused. This phase of the schemes life was highlighted by some experimentation with plaque design, which ultimately led to the modern minimalist look that we now know, which was designed in 1938. The plaques produced an average of eight plaques each year, including a commemoration to Charles Dickens. The LCC was succeeded by the Greater London Council from 1965 to 1986. It began to incorporate not just individuals, but also buildings that held historical significance, such as the commemoration of the building where the Cato-street conspiracy was formed.
The early plaques were a dark brown as it was easier to produce. However, the very earliest plaques were blue, such as Napoleon III’s.
The scheme changed hands yet again, this time and currently, being run by English Heritage, a charity that is responsible for maintaining England’s historic buildings and places of interest. From this point, Blue Plaques began to have a broader reach and became more enshrined in English culture. The selection process also became broader and more regulated with a selected panel advising on who to elect. In order for a figure to qualify for a Blue Plaque, the said person must have been dead for at least twenty years, lived in London for a significant period, the building must still survive and not have been significantly altered, be seen as at the apex of their profession and their achievements must have made an impact on the public. Under English Heritage, the collection of plaques became more eclectic with some being made out to a wide range of people, such as Computer Scientist Alan Turing and guitarist and songwriter Jimi Hendrix.
Even when the scheme risked going under due to government cuts, it received a second wind thanks to many private donations and nominations. Nowadays there are plaques in all but three of Londons boroughs with some quirky recognised buildings such as the residence of famous clown Joseph Grimaldi. Competition for plaques continues to be exciting and with the new plaques for this year dedicated to classic comedian Charlie Chaplin and esteemed actor Sir John Gielgud. This thriving scheme has inspired many other countries to adopt a similar system, such as Australia and America to name a few. If you’re interested to find out more, check out this map from TimeOut that details the exact location of all the plaques.