For a better future, study the past.

Book Review: London’s Blue Plaques 2nd Edition

Spencer, Howard, editor. The English Heritage Guide to London’s Blue Plaques, 2nd edition, revised, and
updated. Tewkesbury: September Publishing, 2019. ISBN 9781912836055, 528 pages, index, photos,
maps. $25.95 or £17.99.

 

Walk around London for even a few minutes and you cannot help but see a blue plaque attached to a building. These plaques are associated with London just as red double-decker buses, black cabs, Big Ben, and the Royal family. So just what are these and why are they there?

These plaques help commemorate not just individuals but the places that are associated with these persons. Curated by English Heritage, this program has been in existence since 1867. English Heritage is now the fourth organization to manage the program, following up on work carried out by the (Royal) Society of the Arts, the London County Council, and the Greater London Council. English Heritage took over management in 1986 and is now responsible for well over 900 plaques.

 

Plaque nominations are provided by the public (the criteria are on the English Heritage website) and go
through a vetting process. Traditionally, the person is the most important part of the selection process.
One of the most important selection criteria is the person must have “made a positive contribution to
human welfare and happiness.” (Page 8) However, some additional guidelines must be followed in order
for a plaque to be awarded.

In order to be recognized, a person must have been dead for twenty years. This allows the selection
committee to judge the impact and enduring legacy of the candidate. A second rule is that the person
may only have one plaque. This rule is more stringently enforced than in the past. Spencer notes that
William Makepeace Thackeray has three blue plaques. A building where a plaque is being proposed may
have no more than two plaques in place. This often rules out buildings such as churches, theatres, and
schools. In fact, there are currently only eighteen structures with more than one plaque.

The London Blue Plaque program helps bring together a person, a place, and a story. As such, you
cannot just nominate a person, there needs to be a structure standing that the commemorated person
would recognize. This means the building must be period appropriate. As Spencer interprets this, “the
thought being that once the original bricks and mortar have gone, so has the meaningful connection
between person and place.” (Page 9) If an imaginary plaque was placed at 1050 Blackstoneberry for Stan
Ridgeway, and the imaginary building was to burn down, a replacement plaque would not be issued to any new
structure built there. The newly constructed building and Ridgeway would have no association.

For the keen observer, you will note that not all plaques are the same. Some are not round and several
are not even blue. The key as to whether a plaque is part of this initiative is to pay attention to the
sponsoring organization. Other plaque sponsoring groups you might see throughout England include the
Westminster City Council Green Plaque, Nubian Jak Community Trust, Ealing Civic Society, and others.

Book editor Howard Spencer is correct to point out the value of this program in addition to name and
place remembrance. This program helps reflect the shifting perceptions of what is historically significant
and what society values and thinks is worthy of memory. History is an evolving field of study and this program is a prime example of this evolution. He points out that currently only fourteen  percent of plaques recognize women and less than five percent honor minorities. While continued efforts are needed on these fronts, Spencer states that these imbalances are being addressed and a wider diversity of people are being publicly commemorated.

Freddie Mercury Blue Plaque located at 22 Gladstone Avenue Feltham, London Burough of Hounslow Photo courtesy English Heritage

A book such as this has value but maybe not so much as a travel or tour guide. For most people, there are more user-friendly ways to learn about these plaques. English Heritage has an excellent search feature on their website allowing you to search by name, keyword, category, or borough. An example; for those interested in rock music, you can find plaques for Freddie Mercury, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon; certainly three of the biggest names in the field.

As a travel tool, I would recommend downloading the official app from your preferred app store. The app will allow you to find all plaques that are near you, search all blue plaques, or take guided tours. When I open the app today, there are two tours listed, Literary Kensington and Soho, Creatives, and Visionaries. Both take you to twelve stops and range from 45 minutes to an hour and a half estimated.

 

All those positives of other options aside, I still have a place on my shelves for this book. One being, I don’t live in London and don’t have the ability to regularly visit. This book gives me a “fix” so to speak. The reality is, most of us will know very few of the names on these plaques. The plaques themselves provide very little information, think “George Washington Slept Here.” Spencer provides a bit more background on each individual allowing readers to determine if they wish to learn more. Most receive about half a page of text. Unfortunately, the majority do not have a photo of their plaque included. This is no doubt a cost issue as including 900+ photos would become prohibitively expensive and the book would balloon from an already large 528 pages to nearly double the size.

For casual readers such as myself, the book is divided geographically into 36 chapters. Each chapter
contains a small-undetailed map. Numbers on the map correspond to listings in the chapter helping you
somewhat orient yourself but street names are not included. Tube stops and names are shown.

The book appears to be solidly constructed and the paper is good quality. Should you wish to throw this
in your backpack while walking the city it doesn’t take too much room but it does weigh a couple of
pounds.

At around $20-$25 US, I have no problem recommending this title. It is a great addition to any armchair
traveler’s library.

If you are in the Covent Garden area of London be sure to find the Young Dancer sculpture. Learn about this great piece of public art in my blog post. 

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