English Heritage's London blue plaques scheme was started in 1866 by the Society (later Royal Society) of Arts, 'to increase the public estimation for places which have been the abodes of men who have made England what it is', although William Ewart, the MP who had first suggested a commemorative plaques scheme several years earlier, preferred to speak of 'celebrated persons'.
Early Plaques to women
The Society put up its first plaque to a woman in 1876, to the actress Sarah Siddons (1783?-1850), at what was then 27 Upper Baker Street. Sadly, this house was demolished in 1904.
The oldest surviving plaque to a woman is for the writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840), whose elegant terracotta plaque from 1885 can still be seen at 11 Bolton Street, Mayfair. It is a sign of the times in which it was made that its inscription gives greater prominence to her married name – Madame D'Arblay – than to the one by which posterity knows her.
The other surviving early plaques are also to writers, namely Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (later Browning; 1806-61), who was commemorated in Wimpole Street in 1899, and Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), whose tablet was mounted on her Hampstead home of more than fifty years in 1900.
Redressing the balance
The London County Council, the custodian of the scheme between 1901 and 1965, installed its first plaque to a woman (also, incidentally, the first to go up south of the Thames) on the Wandsworth home of George Eliot (1819-80) in 1905.
Not long afterwards, the glaring gender imbalance among the plaques that had gone up thus far came to the attention of Laurence Gomme (1853-1916), the Clerk of the Council. Showing the bold and far-sighted initiative that was characteristic of him, Gomme researched and wrote a paper on 'Notable Women' and presented it to the Council's Historical Records and Library Sub-Committee in 1907.
As a result of this work, plaques were put up to Jenny Lind, Madame Goldschmidt (1820-87), the singer known as 'The Swedish Nightingale', the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) and Mary Somerville (1780-1872), the writer on science and mathematics; the last, erected in Hanover Square was lost through demolition in 1968.
Reflecting social change
It is striking that many of the women commemorated during the early years of the London plaques scheme were stage performers or novelists. Over the century since, additions to the scheme have reflected societal changes, and the prominent place that women have taken in fields of human endeavour that were previously closed to them – or simply did not exist.
A figure who personified these shifts was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917), the first English woman to qualify as a doctor, whose plaque went up in Upper Berkeley Street in 1962.
Under the Greater London Council (1965-86) a good number of campaigners for women's education and civil rights were commemorated, including Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), Emily Davies (1830-1921) and Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), as well as Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946), who secured the introduction of the family allowance.
Male campaigners for suffrage
The council also put up a plaque to a leading male campaigner for women's suffrage, Henry Noel Brailsford (1873-1958); an earlier male proponent of the cause was John Stuart Mill (1806-73), whose LCC plaque dates from 1907.
English Heritage's first plaques for women
Among the first plaques put up by English Heritage in 1986 was that in Hendon to Amy Johnson (1903-41), the aviator. We have also commemorated several notable female scientists, including Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the co-discoverer of DNA; the physicist Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), whose 'Ayrton fan' saved many lives from the effects of poison gas in the First World War; and Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-52), whose work on the 'analytical engine' helped to lay the foundations of computer science.
Writers are still well represented; the poets Edith Sitwell (1887-1954), Sylvia Plath (1932-63) and Stevie Smith (1902-71) have been commemorated in recent years, as have the authors Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943), Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969), Mary Shelley (1797-1851), Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and Enid Blyton (1897-1968). The plaque in Doughty Street to the campaigning writers Vera Brittain (1893-1970) and Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was unveiled by the former’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams. Two recent additions to the scheme were the novelists Jean Rhys (1890-1979) and Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973).
Politics and Medicine
In the realm of female politicians, Nancy Astor (1879-1964), the first woman to take her seat in Parliament, had her plaque unveiled by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987. A plaque to the socialist campaigner Eleanor Marx (1855-98), daughter of Karl, went up in Sydenham last year. In the field of medicine, Anna Freud (1895-1982) and Melanie Klein (1882-1960) now have plaques, while Edith Cavell (1865-1915), Ethel Gordon Fenwick (1857-1947) and Mary Seacole (1805-81) are the nurses commemorated – the last plaque, first put up by the GLC, was re-erected in Soho Square by English Heritage in 2007. Several important female medical pioneers are on the shortlist for further investigation.
Find out about listed buildings which illuminate the lives of women in healthcare.
Sport and the Arts
The early Wimbledon champions Dorothea Lambert Chambers (1878-1960) and Kitty Godfree (1896-1992) have both been commemorated recently in the leafy western suburbs where they lived. Women stars of the stage honoured by English Heritage include Dame Marie Rambert (1888-1982), founder of the Ballet Rambert, the dancer and teacher Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), the singer Nellie Melba (1861-1931), the pianist Myra Hess (1890-1965) and the actresses Sybil Thorndike (1882-1976), Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) , Vivien Leigh (1913-67), and Celia Johnson (1908-82). Two singers of contrasting styles have been honoured recently: Gracie Fields (1898-1979), on Islington's Upper Street, and Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003), just off the Brompton Road.
As to visual artists, the photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977) was commemorated in 2003, joining - among others - the illustrator Kate Greenaway (1846-1901). More recently a plaque went up in South Audley Street at the former commercial premises of Constance Spry (1886-1960), who turned flower arranging into floral art.
Blue Plaque Research
The London plaques scheme has been driven almost entirely by public suggestion, and sometimes, research on one case will open up the possibility of another. Consideration of Mary Phillips (1880-1969), a relatively minor figure in the suffrage movement, led to a longer report which revealed that no one had ever thought to suggest Emmeline (1858-1928) and Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958), whose joint plaque was unveiled in 2006 at their former address in Holland Park. Another fruit of this report was the plaque to Hertha Ayrton already mentioned. As well as being a prominent physicist, she had made her house in Paddington available for the recuperation of suffragette hunger strikers. Around the same time, too, the activist and social reformer Josephine Butler (1828-1906) was also commemorated. More recently, English Heritage has arranged for plaques to go up to Marie Stopes (1880-1958), the family planning campaigner of worldwide fame, and to the educationists Rachel (1859-1917) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931).
Among the famous women who it is hoped to honour with plaques in the future are are the novelist Georgette Heyer (1902-74), the pioneering Egyptologist Amelia Edwards (1931-92), the singer, the tennis player and sporting all-rounder Lottie Dod (1871-1960), and the journalist Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998).
Regrettably, it cannot be guaranteed that all these figures will get plaques. In some cases – like those of the actress Judy Garland (1922-69), and Agnes Marshall (1855-1905), the pioneer of ice-cream making – the consent of the building owners may not be forthcoming. In others – like those of the artist and activist Barbara Leigh Bodichon (1827-91), author Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) – research may show that unfortunately, there is no suitable London address still standing that could be commemorated.
Where to find out more
The full details of the addresses and inscriptions of all the official London plaques are available in the blue plaques section, how the scheme works and describes how to nominate someone for a blue plaque: new suggestions are always welcome.
The first 800 official London plaques are described and discussed in the book, 'Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the stories behind them', edited by Emily Cole, which was published by Yale University Press in May 2009.