Six New Blue Plaques for Women in 2020

Barbara Hepworth and Noor Inayat Khan are among the women to be honoured with a blue plaque in 2020, with Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan being commemorated today

Barbara Hepworth © Fox Photos/Getty Images

Second World War spies, suffrage organisation headquarters and one of Britain’s most important 20th-century artists will be among six new blue plaques honouring women this year.

The first addition to the scheme this year will be unveiled today and dedicated to botanist and leader of women in the armed forces, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.

Only 14% of the 950+ London blue plaques celebrate women. While this is still unacceptably low, English Heritage’s ongoing ‘plaques for women’ campaign has seen a dramatic rise in the number of public nominations for women since it launched in 2016.

For the first time, the English Heritage blue plaques panel is shortlisting more women than men this year – which reflects both the quality and the quantity of the new suggestions coming in.

Only once before has English Heritage unveiled as many as six plaques to women in a single year; and its predecessors in running the scheme never managed anything close to this figure. 

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan © Gerry Cranham/Stringer/Getty Images

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director and Secretary of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel, said:

'Our efforts to address the gender imbalance within the London Blue Plaques scheme are starting to yield some strong results and we are delighted to be able to announce these six new plaques.

'It is a long road but we are well on our way to receiving equal number of public nominations for men and women. There are now more women shortlisted than men, and 2020 will see more plaques to women than we have unveiled in 20 years.'

Noor Inayat Khan © National Portrait Gallery, London

New blue plaques for women in 2020

Please note, we are currently working with the property owners and all blue plaques are subject to full owner approval.

Christine Granville (1908-1952): Born Krystyna Skarbek, Granville was one of the most remarkable secret agents of the Second World War and was the first woman to work as a Special Operations Executive agent – two years before they officially recruited women. As Britain’s longest-serving female agent in the Second World War, she undertook many successful missions in Nazi-occupied Europe. Her plaque will be unveiled at the west London hotel where she lived for the last three years of her life and her only long-term base in the capital. 

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975): One of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Hepworth was a ground-breaking sculptor. Her works are held in the collections of major institutions worldwide, including the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her plaque will mark the north London address where she created one of her earliest Mother and Child sculptures, a motif that recurred frequently in her work throughout the 1930s. It was here that she held her first ever exhibition, together with her then-husband and fellow sculptor John Skeaping (also to be commemorated on the new plaque).

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944): Renowned for her service in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, Khan was Britain’s first Muslim war heroine and the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France. Her blue plaque will mark the house in Bloomsbury that was her family home when she left for France in 1943 and where her family received the news that she was missing the following year. She ultimately lost her life at the hands of the Gestapo in 1944. Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949. 

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (1879-1967): Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan is as much admired for her work during the First World War as one of the leading figures in the first women’s corps in the British military, as she is for her academic work as a botanist. Her blue plaque will mark the building on Bedford Avenue in Bloomsbury in which she lived for nearly 50 years. It was while living here that she gained her appointments as one of the Chief Controllers of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps; Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force, and Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service – as well as being awarded her professorial chair at Birkbeck College.

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (Formed in 1897):  The NUWSS was the largest of any women’s suffrage campaigning organisation. At its peak in 1913, it had nearly 500 affiliates and its total membership reached 50,000. The blue plaque will mark their headquarters in Westminster during the crucial eight years leading up to the Representation of the People Act 1918 – the legislation that gave some women the vote. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was congratulated on her role in bringing about the reform at the last NUWSS executive meeting held in these offices.

Women’s Social and Political Union (Formed in 1903): The WSPU’s militant actions propelled women’s suffrage into the spotlight. The new plaque in Holborn will mark the only surviving building that served as the organisation’s London headquarters. Despite frequent police raids, it would once have been a bustling and well-staffed office, with a dedicated ‘Prisoners’ Secretary’ among the employees, and a shop, selling suffrage literature and promotional items.

Christine Granville © Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 discovered DNA, and Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in parliament. 

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 suggestions.

How London blue plaques are awarded

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 

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

Find out more about how to nominate someone for a blue plaque. 

For more from English Heritage, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

'step into englands story