The iconic blue plaque, as it exists today, was a relatively late development in the history of the blue plaques scheme. Indeed, it was not until about the time of the Second World War that the scheme became known as such: previously it had been called the 'Indication of Houses of Historical Interest in London'.
The earliest plaques, erected in 1867 by the (Royal) Society of Arts, were made of encaustic ware (by Minton, Hollins & Co.) and were coloured blue. Their format – a roundel with the name of the Society of Arts worked into a pattern around the edge – was used consistently by the Society over its 35 years of management.
The earliest surviving example of this type of plaque is that to Napoleon III in King Street, St James’s, erected in 1867. The colour in which the Society’s designs were executed, however, was more often brown: the manufacturers found it difficult and expensive to produce blue-coloured plaques.
The plaque to the statesman Sir Harry Vane in Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, was installed in 1898 and is of this type. Other brown plaques of this design include those to Michael Faraday and Joanna Baillie.
After taking over the scheme in 1901, the London County Council (LCC) chose to use the Society of Arts design as a model, substituting its own name for that of the Society. Plaques remained mostly circular and continued to be made by Minton, but they featured a laurel wreath surround, with ribbon embellishments, a design used consistently from the time of the first LCC plaque, in 1903, until 1938.
That said, the LCC regularly experimented during the first two decades of the twentieth century; plaques were made of bronze, stone and lead, some were square or rectangular, and they varied in colour between brown, sage, terracotta and blue.
In 1921, the LCC’s Architect produced a detailed report on the design and material of the Council's plaques, with the aim of improving plaque appearance, longevity, suitability for London building types, and cost-effectiveness.
At this stage, blue was chosen as the principal colour - it was deemed to stand out best against London's buildings - and glazed Doulton Ware was selected as the preferred material, as it was easy to clean and relatively cheap. The most memorable of the Doulton plaques is a series of seven (of which only five survive), produced in 1925-6, which are of a della Robbia style and feature a colourful raised wreath border.
A New Design
In 1938, the modern design of the blue plaque was born, created by an unnamed student of the Central School of Arts and Crafts. This omitted the former wreath and ribbon motif, and simplified the overall layout, allowing a bolder spacing and arrangement of the lettering.
The first plaque made to this design, brown in colour, commemorated the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Ebury Street, Belgravia. The white border was added shortly afterwards and the adoption of the colour blue, used almost invariably from the 1940s onwards, completed the now-familiar design.
Plaques were made by Doulton from 1921 until 1955, when the firm’s London factory closed and manufacture was moved to Poole, Dorset. Since 1981, manufacture has been undertaken by independent craftspeople.
Once the inscription of a plaque has been agreed, a design is created, placed and set by our designer using English Heritage’s own unique font. In order to be legible, this design takes up to 19 words of inscription (including dates). On occasions, both design and material have been altered, though this rarely proves necessary.
Manufacture of each plaque is undertaken by the mixing and pouring of a thick clay slip into a casting mould. When sufficiently dry, the cast is removed and the outline of the inscription and border is piped onto the face of the plaque. The plaque is fired, and glaze is applied: white for the letters and border, and blue for the background. The plaque is then fired for a second time. The process produces gently raised characters and border, a notable feature of English Heritage plaques. After firing, plaques usually have a thickness of two inches (50mm) and a final diameter of 19½ inches (495mm), although plaques of a smaller diameter are sometimes used to meet special circumstances.
English Heritage plaques have been found to be extremely durable and have an almost indefinite life expectancy. Similar plaques erected by the Society of Arts have lasted, perfectly legible, for well over 100 years. Due to their slightly domed design, they are self-cleansing and require virtually no maintenance.