We Want More Blue Plaques for Women, says English Heritage

  • Charity calls on the public for more female nominations
  • Only 14% of London blue plaques are to women
  • Botanist Agnes Arber to receive blue plaque

English Heritage is calling on the public to nominate more notable women from history for London blue plaques and to help the charity increase the number of women honoured with the iconic blue roundels.

Today only 14% of the over 900 London blue plaques celebrate women. English Heritage doesn’t think that’s good enough and since 2016 when it first launched its 'plaques for women' campaign, more than half of the people awarded plaques by its panel of experts have been women – including the botanist Agnes Arber (1879-1960) whose blue plaque will be unveiled on Thursday in Primrose Hill.

Of the 119 nominations the charity received from the public since 2016, a third were for women – an improvement on the figure for the previous two years, when the figure stood at under a quarter. But more needs to be done: nominations are the life blood of the London blue plaques scheme and if we are to see a significant increase in the number of blue plaques for women, we will need more female suggestions.

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director and Secretary of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel, said: "The London blue plaques scheme is over 150 years old and the dominance of plaques to men reflects a historic blindness to both the role women have played in our society and the type of roles deemed worthy of celebration. At English Heritage we’ve long recognised this and have been doing what we can to address it, but the blue plaques scheme relies on public nominations, and we need their help.

"This year’s centenary of the first votes for women has brought about an increased urgency to rebalance the record of women’s contribution to history. We really hope this enthusiasm will be translated into lots more nominations and ultimately more blue plaques for women."

How to get a London blue plaque 

The London blue plaques scheme celebrates the link between significant figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked. In order to receive a blue plaque, figures must be judged to have met a number of criteria, including the following:   

• they should have made a great and lasting impact on society 

• they should have been dead for more than 20 years 

• the London building in which they lived or worked should still survive

Some women awarded blue plaques since 2016:

• Agnes Arber (1879-1960) 

Publishing eight books and more than ninety scientific papers on the field of botany, Arber was the first female botanist to be elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1946 and only the third woman to be afforded the honour. She was also the first woman to be awarded the Linnean Medal in 1948 for her contributions to botanical science. Her first and perhaps most widely read work is Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution (1912), while her later works reflect her profound growing interest in philosophy: The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint (1954), and The Manifold and the One (1957).

• Elizabeth David (1913-1992)

Credited with introducing post-war England to Mediterranean food, David is often cited as the single most influential English food writer of the 20th century. She was the author of A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), Italian Food (1954) and French Provincial Cooking (1960). Transforming cooking from a matter of necessity to one of pleasure, David was largely responsible for establishing olive oil and garlic as staples in kitchen cupboards across the country. Her books sold over a million copies and remain in print today. 

• Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991)

Margot Fonteyn is widely regarded as the greatest ballet dancer of her generation. Dominating the world of ballet for more than 40 years, her dancing was characterised by purity of line, a rare musicality, and an acting ability that conveyed the character of the many roles she portrayed. Fonteyn joined Ninette de Valois’ Vic-Wells School (later Sadler’s Wells Ballet and The Royal Ballet) in 1933 and at the age of 15 took the leading part in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Rio Grand. Some of her career-defining roles as Prima Ballerina include The Sleeping Beauty (1949), Daphnis and Chloë (1951), and Sylvia (1952).

Three women due to receive blue plaques:

• Margaret Lockwood (1916-1990)

English actor and one of Britain's most popular film stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Lockwood starred in many films including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Man in Grey (1943), and The Wicked Lady (1945). Her on-screen performances brought her international acclaim and reportedly sixteen thousand fan letters came to her a week, as did the Daily Mail award for best film actress for three years running (1946-48). 

• Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)

Renowned for her service in the Special Operations Executive, Khan was a British heroine of the Second World War, and was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France. She was eventually captured and lost her life at the hands of the Gestapo in 1944. For her courage, Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949. The next step is to identify the best location and secure permissions for the plaque. 

• Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Gertrude Bell was a traveller, archaeologist and diplomat, who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. She was one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), in June 1913, and was the first woman to receive an RGS Award. The Society also awarded her their prestigious Founder’s Medal in 1918. She was made a CBE in 1917, and in 1919 became the third woman to be voted into the Society of Antiquaries of London. The process of gaining full permissions for Bell’s plaque is currently under way.

More strong suggestions have already come in, including the author Daphne du Maurier and the artist Vanessa Bell. But we need more – and especially in the areas of science, sport and the fine arts, where women are particularly poorly represented. We also welcome suggestions of plaques commemorating particular events, organisations and social movements associated with the history of women. Already approved are three London buildings particularly associated with women’s suffrage organisations.

Blue Plaques for Women – Key Statistics:

• The London Blue Plaques scheme was founded in 1866 

• The first plaque to a woman was erected in 1876 and honoured the actress Sarah Siddons, although this no longer survives 

• By 1905, just five women – one actress and four writers (including George Eliot) – had been commemorated with a plaque

• By 1986, when English Heritage took over the London blue plaques scheme, the number of blue plaques celebrating women was 45.

• Since then, English Heritage has unveiled more than 80 London blue plaques to women – 60% of the total blue plaques to women – including plaques to Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computing, Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover DNA, and Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in parliament.

To find out more, including how to nominate someone for a blue plaque, visit: 

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.

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