Anyone visiting London in their campervan can’t fail to notice the hundreds of distinctive bright blue, round plaques dotted around on the front of buildings across the capital. Commemorating the lives of famous residents from tortured geniuses to trail blazing suffragettes and from rock stars to revolutionaries, these simple, small signs add much to the wonder of London. After all, you never know who you’ll discover when you’re next parking up your trusty camper on a London street!
Intrigued? Then read on as we delve deep into the history of London’s English Heritage Blue Plaques scheme. We’ll look at how properties are awarded one and some of the best to visit as part of your next campervan trip to the Big Smoke.
Whether it’s for a short and sweet weekend break or a summer long expedition, don’t leave home without checking your campervan insurance is up to date. From bumps and scrapes to break downs and break ins, the team at Motorhome Protect can get you covered in super- quick time!
What are English Heritage blue plaques?
Run by English Heritage since 1986, the Blue Plaque scheme has in fact been celebrating our unique heritage for over 150 years. Its purpose is to highlight the incredible connection between notable people of the past and the London buildings in which they lived, worked and even died. There are now over 950 blue plaques scattered all over London honouring an increasingly diverse range of people and their talents.
So, if you’re ever asked what connects Mary Seacole, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimi Hendrix and Juan Pujol Garcia (secret agent codename ‘Garbo’) you’ll now know!
A brief history of the Blue Plaque scheme
First suggested in 1863 by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons, the scheme was initially led by the Society of Arts which agreed to erect plaques in a variety of shapes and colours across London. The first plaque was unveiled in 1867 to commemorate the romantic poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square.
Unfortunately, this house was later demolished and the plaque lost. So, the earliest blue plaque to survive, also unveiled in 1867, commemorates France’s last emperor Napoleon III in King Street, St James's.
In 1901, the Society of Arts scheme was taken over by the London County Council (LCC) and in 1938, the current plaque design was created by an unnamed student at the LCC's Central School of Arts and Crafts. In time the Greater London Council (GLC) took over from the LCC in 1965 and ran the scheme until 1986. The Blue Plaque scheme was then passed to English Heritage which has run it until this day.
Such has been the success of the scheme that it’s led to many imitators around the country. Some are restricted to a specific geographical area, others to a particular theme of historical or social importance. They are controlled by a whole range of diverse organisations including local authorities, civic societies, and residents' associations. But there’s nothing quite like the original Blue Plaques scheme!
How are properties awarded an English Heritage blue plaque?
As the longest running and perhaps most prestigious scheme of its type the competition for a blue plaque can be quite intense. It’s based almost entirely on nominations from the public who write or email English Heritage before submitting a formal proposal.
English Heritage's in-house historian then researches the proposal before submitting them to the 12 experts on the Blue Plaques panel. This panel then meets three times a year to create a shortlist and advise on which suggestions should be awarded a coveted Blue Plaque.
Because the scheme is so popular, and such a lot of detailed research has to be carried out, it can take around three years for a proposal to reach the top of the shortlist. If a proposal is not taken forward then another 10 years must pass before a re-proposal can be made.
So, if you’re thinking of making a proposal then it’s worth getting in touch with English Heritage beforehand to see what its chances of success are. Who knows, there could be a luminary of the campervan world who needs wider public attention!
To be eligible for commemoration by a blue plaque the famous person must:
- Have been dead for over 20 years.
- Be a real person, not a fictional character or animal.
- Be considered eminent or distinguished by a majority of members of their own profession or calling.
- Be of significant public standing in a London-wide, national or international context.
- Have made a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness.
- Have lived or worked in that building for a significant period, in length of time or importance, within their life and work.
- A plaque can be erected for more than one person but they must both be of significance in their own right.
There are also specific criteria for the location of the plaque itself:
- Plaques can only be erected on the actual building inhabited by the famous person. Not on the site of a former building, or on buildings that have since been radically altered.
- Plaques are not placed onto educational or ecclesiastic buildings, military establishments, hospitals, hotels, private clubs, Inns of Court or royal palaces. Or any other building associated with so many well-known figures that to commemorate just one would be inappropriate.
- Buildings marked with plaques must be clearly visible from the public highway and not normally erected on a boundary wall or gate pier. Perfect for spotting from your camper!
- A single person cannot be commemorated by more than one blue plaque.
Other schemes elsewhere in the UK have different criteria, which are often less restrictive. For example, under other schemes plaques can often be erected to mark the sites of demolished buildings. The full English Heritage Blue Plaques criteria can be viewed on their website.
English Heritage has compiled a register of other schemes across England. If there’s someone you think deserves a plaque in your local area then your local council may also be able to help.
Some of the best plaques to visit in the UK in your campervan
Visiting the English Heritage blue plaque for someone who has special significance to you can be an interesting stop-off in any campervan road trip. With London having over 950 plaques you’ll be spoilt for choice. If you’re looking for inspiration then here’s a few to get you started.
- Dr Samuel Johnson – Erected all the way back in 1876 to the legendary wordsmith who lived at 17 Gough Square near Fleet Street. This remains the only blue plaque in the City of London financial district. Soon after its unveiling, the City big wigs decided they would take charge of who they would and would not commemorate within the Square Mile. Oh, and it isn’t blue, it’s brown.
- Karl Marx – The political theorist can undoubtedly lay claim to one of the most controversial blue plaques. Put up in 1937 at his final address in Chalk Farm the plaque had to be removed after it was repeatedly vandalised. A subsequent plaque was unveiled in 1967 in Dean Street, Soho.
- Vincent Van Gogh – One of history’s most famous artists, Van Gogh is usually associated with the artistic melting pot of Paris or the few short earth-shattering years he spent in the South of France. However, a significant part of his life was actually spent in England. From working at a Kent school, to living with his sister in Vauxhall, he spent a lot of time around London. However, it’s a Georgian terraced house at 87 Hackford Road in Stockwell, which has the privilege of displaying Van Gogh’s blue plaque.
- Joseph Grimaldi – From 1818 to 1829, the legendary ‘King of Clowns’, lived at what is now called Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. Grimaldi was one of the most influential figures in the development of that most bizarre of theatrical experiences – the British pantomime!
- Mary Seacole – There are few people who have blazed a trail quite like nurse and businesswoman Mary Seacole. Until recently far less well known than her contemporary Florence Nightingale, Seacole fought prejudice and huge challenges to provide care to soldiers during the Crimean War. Her plaque can be found at 14 Soho Square where she lived during a very difficult financial period in her long eventful life.
- Noor Inayat Khan – Britain’s first Muslim war heroine is remembered for her courage working in the Special Operations Executive during World War II. She was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France but was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944. Posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949, Khan only received the plaque in 2020.
- With just 14% of London’s blue plaques celebrating women, English Heritage recently launched a ‘plaques for women’ campaign to spark more nominations. Other women to celebrated in 2020 included sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth, botanist Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan and former secret agent Christine Granville.
- Luke Howard – The ‘Namer of Clouds’ plaque can be found at 7 Bruce Grove in Tottenham. After all, it’s not just politicians, artists and writers who deserve these accolades.
- Indeed, many blue plaques celebrate quirkier occupations. Our favourites include: Willy Clarkson, theatrical wigmaker, near Chinatown; Prince Peter Kropotkin, Theorist of Anarchism, in Bromley; Tom Cribb, bare knuckle boxing champion, in Leicester Square; and Sir Edwin Saunders, Queen Victoria’s dentist, who is honoured on the wall of a grand, Grade II-listed building in Wimbledon.
If you want to find out whether your favourite actor, writer or other historical figure has already been commemorated then take a look on English Heritage’s Find a Plaque search page.
Remember though, London driving can get pretty hectic. If you’re tootling around the city spotting these blue plaques from your cherished camper then make sure you have campervan insurance in case of any bumps and scrapes.
Interestingly, not all official plaques are found in London. In the early 2000s English Heritage trialled a national plaques scheme, erecting 34 plaques in Birmingham, Merseyside, Southampton and Portsmouth. While the scheme was discontinued in 2005 the Blue Plaques can still be visited in your campervan.
Brothers Richard and George Cadbury are commemorated at two separate buildings in Birmingham. The well-known chocolate manufacturers and philanthropists both lived in Edgbaston in the late 19th Century. Richard’s plaque is at 17 Wheeleys Road while George’s is at 32 George Road.
With the largest number of Blue Plaques outside of London, Merseyside has some great places for fans to visit. Tenacious campaigner and Labour MP Bessie Braddock lived at 2 Zig Zag Road, West Derby for 25 years. Legendary toy inventor Frank Hornby lived at The Hollies, Station Road in Maghull. While arguably Merseyside’s most famous son John Lennon grew up at 251 Menlove Avenue in Woolton.
Seven famous residents received the blue plaque treatment in Southampton including the designer of the Lancaster and Vulcan bombers Roy Chadwick, campaigner for women’s education Emily Davies, and Sir Edward Penley Abraham, the developer of antibiotics.
Portsmouth has a similar number of blue plaques commemorating, among others, writer Rudyard Kipling, actor and comedian Peter Sellers and two remarkable World War I heroes! Lieutenant Norman Holbrooke VC and Commander Edwin Unwin VC, both heroes of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.
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