Blue plaques are a familiar feature of the London streetscape; as elegant markers of the links between famous figures and buildings – usually residences – they have been widely admired and imitated since the first went up in 1867 to Lord Byron. The London plaque scheme – believed to be the oldest in the world – functions as an accessible, perhaps even subliminal, means of public education. It is also an ongoing research project, and there is little sign of the flow of promising new suggestions drying up.
It was the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) that first took up the suggestion of William Ewart, Liberal MP and public libraries pioneer – to place 'some record' on the former homes of 'celebrated persons'.(1) The stewardship of the scheme was transferred to the newly-formed London County Council (LCC) in 1901, and it remained a municipal enterprise until the demise of the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986, when it passed to English Heritage. Apart from a few pilot projects, the plaques scheme has remained exclusive to London; when a hoped-for national inventory of plaques is completed, it may be possible to survey patterns of commemoration on a more comprehensive basis.
Given its origins, it is not surprising that the London plaque scheme displays a literary bias, despite some effort in recent decades to rebalance this. The first historian to be commemorated was, perhaps inevitably, Edward Gibbon, whose Society of Arts plaque was erected on his former home in Bentinck Street, Marylebone, in 1896. The background to this is unfortunately obscure, the whereabouts of the records of the Society of Arts' stewardship of the scheme being unknown. It was early in the LCC era that the scheme came to operate – as it continues to do – by public suggestion, both from private individuals and professional bodies. Gibbon still has a plaque, but it is a later production of 1964. It is set on a building on the site of the actual house in which he lived, which was gone by 1925: it was one of the few occasions in recent years that the unhistorical practice of marking an inauthentic structure was permitted.
Along with the scheme, the Society of Arts bequeathed to the LCC a list of pending plaque suggestions. Among them was Thomas Babington Macaulay, who became the recipient of the council's very first plaque, erected in November 1903, at Holly Lodge, Campden Hill. It was unveiled by Lord Rosebery, the former Prime Minister and, more relevantly, the first chairman of the LCC. In a display of the vitality of the links that plaques can indicate, he excused the absence of Macaulay's biographer Sir George Trevelyan 'from excess in feeling at visiting a house which is associated with the happiest recollections of his childhood and which to him is a sacred spot'.(2)
Trevelyan himself, incidentally, has a plaque in Cambridge, but not in London, not having been formally proposed since he became eligible under the rule that candidates must be deceased for 20 years, or – in the strongest cases – for the centenary of their birth to have passed. This period of time is allowed in order that the significance of a candidate may be judged in a historical context.
The original plaque to Macaulay – on which he was deemed to need no occupational descriptor, a distinction shared with Marx, Gandhi and Disraeli – is now in storage, Holly Lodge having been demolished in the early 1960s. Macaulay is, however, commemorated by a later plaque erected by the LCC in 1930 at The Pavement, Clapham, along with his father Zachary. Owing to the length of the inscription, it is a non-standard stone plaque. Not all official London plaques are blue ceramic roundels: the colour brown was once preferred, and rectangular bronze tablets were used for a time.
After Macaulay's plaque, the LCC honoured, in short order, several more historians of the grand narrative tradition: Henry Hallam (1904), George Grote (1905) and Thomas Carlyle (1907). John Richard Green, a trailblazer for social and cultural history, joined Macaulay in the rare distinction of being awarded two plaques; one in 1909 in Beaumont Street, Westminster, and a second in Newark Street, Tower Hamlets, in 1910. As with the three plaques the council erected for Joseph Chamberlain a little later, two plaques for Green may seem excessive (a one plaque per person rule was adopted later). It is revealing, however, of the regard in which he was held at the time, as much for his social activism as an East End clergyman as for his Short History of the English People.(3)
After this rush of activity, some time elapsed before James Anthony Froude was honoured in 1934. This was followed some 20 years later with a plaque to his neighbour in Onslow Gardens, Kensington, W. E. H. Lecky. Their fierce antagonism over the historical relations between England and Ireland adds a poignancy to the physical proximity of their plaques. Leslie Stephen, a biographical historian on a monumental scale, was awarded a plaque in 1960; George Smith, the publisher who bankrolled Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography, is on the current shortlist for full address research.
The advent of the GLC in 1965 widened the geographical spread of plaques to outer London, and broadened the range of historians commemorated. Revealingly, J. L. and Barbara Hammond were specifically defined as 'Social Historians' on their joint plaque, erected in 1972. In the same year, Hilaire Belloc was, perhaps controversially, denominated a 'poet, essayist and historian' on his plaque in Chelsea. Lytton Strachey, described as a 'critic and biographer' on the plaque erected in 1971, surely has as good a claim to be called a historian; at any event, his recommendation of a 'becoming brevity' in biographical writing has much pertinence in the framing of suitable plaque inscriptions.(4) Finally, at the suggestion of Lord Ponsonby, who then chaired the GLC, the council honoured the economic historian R. H. Tawney in 1980.
A small but eclectic selection of historians has been given plaques since English Heritage have administered the scheme. Francois Guizot, who was famed foremost as an exiled minister of the French crown, was awarded one in 2001. Three years later, Arnold Toynbee was honoured along with his father Joseph at their house in Wimbledon; as with J. R. Green, there were philanthropic as well as historical achievements to commend him for selection. In 2006, the 800th plaque erected under the London-wide scheme went up to Sir Laurence Gomme, the historian and folklorist who ran the blue plaques scheme in the early years of the LCC, shaping its development and setting the benchmark for standards in research. In every way, this was a nicely circular tribute.
In 2007, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was honoured at his long-term home in Hampstead. His colleague Sir John Summerson features on the shortlist, as does A. J. P. Taylor. As an early TV don, Taylor fared well when measured against the scheme's 'Clapham omnibus' criterion – dating from 1954 – that candidates' names should be 'recognisable to the well-informed passer-by'. For this reason, televised exponents of the broad brush (along with their internet spawn, perhaps?) may be the surest bet for future blue plaques.
In contrast, the historical backroom has fared poorly when its denizens have come before the judging panel. Among the 'industrious compilers' to have been turned down in recent years are Charles Clay and, after some hesitation, James Gairdner. Other recent candidates have been John Fortescue, the military historian – who, like Gairdner, worked on the Calendar of State Papers and Theodore Plucknett, author of the Concise History of the Common Law.(5) Both were thought to have worked in too much of a niche market. The fragmentation of the discipline over recent decades makes it all the more difficult to judge, in the words of another scheme criterion, which candidates are truly 'considered eminent by a majority of members of their own profession or calling'.
Among the historians commemorated, it is notable that only Froude can really be said to belong to a conservative tradition. Perhaps this is a reflection on the political makeup of the London-wide councils for most of their existence. Some may detect a whiff of whiggery in another of the selection criteria, under which plaque candidates are assessed according to their 'positive contribution to human welfare and happiness'. Since the earliest days of the scheme, however, plaques have been regarded as an honour, not a mere matter of record. The laurel wreaths that adorn many of the early designs bear wordless testimony to this.
It is perhaps even more striking just how few professional, university-based historians of the 20th century have even had their names put forward for plaques. Partly, this must be because many leading historians of the 'professional' age have been based in Oxford, Cambridge or elsewhere, and have had no permanent London base. Others, who did live in London, have no suitable address surviving – E. A. Freeman is one whose name was mentioned, but who does not meet this basic requirement. Still – in view of the leading institutions that are based in London – the paucity of nominations is remarkable. No record exists of any Institute of Historical Research (IHR) director being suggested, for example.
It is noteworthy too that no professional historical body has been active in proposing past members for plaques – unlike, for instance, the various colleges of medical practitioners. In the cases for which records remain, most historians have been put forward by family members, later residents of the house in question, local historians or simply interested members of the public. If this betokens indifference among professional historians to the commemoration of their predecessors, it is a very curious phenomenon – especially in a scheme that offers such a visible manifestation of public history. Surely – once allowance is made for the speed at which scholarship can date – there are more past masters who deserve to be praised, rather than buried?