The idea of erecting ‘memorial tablets’ – as they were then known – was first proposed in 1863 by William Ewart MP, in the House of Commons. Only a week later, Henry Cole expressed his support for the initiative, and recommended that a scheme be set up by the Society of Arts (awarded royal patronage in 1908).
The scheme under the (Royal) Society of Arts
Ewart’s idea had an immediate impact upon the popular imagination and in 1866 the (Royal) Society of Arts founded what would become the blue plaques scheme we know today.
The first names considered included those of Benjamin Franklin, David Garrick and Lord Nelson. The Society erected its first plaque in 1867: it commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, a house demolished in 1889. The earliest blue plaque to survive, also erected in 1867, commemorates Napoleon III in King Street, St James's.
From the outset, the aim of the scheme was to celebrate the link between person and building, and to make ‘our houses their own biographers’ (in the words of a correspondent to 'The Times', 1873).
It was also hoped that the plaque scheme would play a role in encouraging the preservation of houses of historical interest, many of which were then threatened with demolition (including the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds in Leicester Square). The scheme has therefore played an important part in the history of the conservation movement – pre-dating initiatives such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (founded in 1877) and the National Trust (founded in 1895) – and has been responsible for raising awareness about a number of London’s buildings and, in some cases, saving them from demolition.
In 1879, the Society of Arts came to an agreement with the Corporation of the City of London that the latter would erect plaques in the square mile. This demarcation – related to the jurisdictional independence of the City – has remained in place ever since: with the exception of the plaque to Dr Johnson in Gough Square, none of the plaques now in the care of English Heritage are to be found within the City.
In total, the Society of Arts erected 35 plaques; today, less than half of these survive, including those commemorating John Keats, W. M. Thackeray and Edmund Burke. The Society's plaques are easily recognisable by their intricate pattern borders, containing the words 'Society of Arts'. For more information see the blue plaque design.
The scheme under the LCC and the GLC
In 1901, the scheme passed from the (Royal) Society of Arts to the London County Council (LCC), and became known as the 'Indication of Houses of Historical Interest in London', a name it retained until around the time of the Second World War.
It was under the LCC that the selection criteria were formalised, and the blue plaque design as we know it today was created. The selection criteria agreed in 1954 put an end to the practice of erecting plaques on sites, which for a comparatively short time had been allowed by the LCC but which undermined the fundamental principles of the scheme.
When the scheme was taken over, various forms of plaques were considered. In the end, however, the Society of Arts' roundel was adopted, with two notable changes: the introduction of a laurel wreath border and the LCC's title. For further information see the blue plaque design.
The LCC erected its first plaque in 1903 to the historian Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, and set up an average of eight plaques per year in the period up to the outbreak of the First World War. Despite the suspension of the scheme in 1915-19 and 1940-47 due to war-time economies, plaques continued to be erected at a regular pace. By 1965, when the LCC was abolished, the organisation had erected nearly 250 plaques.
On the abolition of the LCC the plaques scheme passed to the Greater London Council (GLC). The aims and working of the scheme remained broadly the same, but the GLC was keen to broaden the range of people commemorated.
The 262 plaques erected by the GLC include those to figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst, campaigner for women’s rights; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer of the 'Song of Hiawatha'; and Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse and heroine of the Crimean War. Geographically, the GLC covered a wider area than its predecessor, which had been focused solely on central London boroughs and took on what was, for the plaques scheme, uncharted territory - for instance, Richmond, Croydon and Redbridge.
English Heritage plaques: 1986-present
Since 1986, English Heritage has managed the blue plaques scheme, and bases its selection criteria and processes on those operated by the LCC and the GLC. The first plaque erected by English Heritage commemorated the painter Oskar Kokoschka in August 1986, at Eyre Court, Finchley Road, St John’s Wood.
Since then, English Heritage has erected over 350 plaques bringing the total number to in excess of 850. It has also established the Blue Plaques Panel, which advises the Commission and staff on the selection of individuals for commemoration. Today the Panel is chaired by Professor Sir David Cannadine, and is composed so as to bring a variety of expertise to the consideration of cases.
English Heritage has continued the work of the GLC in broadening the coverage of the scheme, both geographically - there are now plaques in all but three of London's boroughs - and in terms of the figures commemorated. English Heritage plaques honour individuals from a wide range of endeavour, such as the guitarist and songwriter Jimi Hendrix, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and the actress Vivien Leigh, as well as people such as the poet, Lord Tennyson, the pilot Guy Gibson, and the nurse Edith Cavell.
In 2009, English Heritage published the first comprehensive history and guide to the scheme, with Yale University Press, entitled 'Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them', edited by Emily Cole. This is available online at the English Heritage shop.