English Heritage appeals for subjects in huge expansion of blue plaque scheme

Michael McCarthy
Wednesday 26 February 2003 01:00
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Want to mark the home of a long-dead local worthy? Now's your chance. London's famous blue plaques, commemorating the former homes of the great, the good, the famous and the obscure-but-deserving, will spread across the country.

Funding for the English Heritage scheme, is to be doubled from £100,000 to £200,000 per year, the Arts minister, Tessa Blackstone announced yesterday, promoting a public campaign to find new subjects for plaques outside London.

But before you rush to put forward the name of Alderman Dugdale Higginbottom, your great-uncle and for many years chairman of the town's tramways committee, to join the ranks of John Keats and Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill, consider. It can't be just anybody.

Those considered worthy of a plaque must fit certain strict criteria, and even then, they may not be plaqued. "We turn down at least half of the names put forward," said the critic and TV presenter Loyd Grossman, chairman of the selection panel which includes such luminaries as the historian David Starkey, the biographer and novelist AN Wilson and the architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Blue plaques were confined to London until 2000, when English Heritage began a pilot project on Merseyside, where an early plaque marked the Liverpool birthplace of the Beatle John Lennon. More provincial plaques are to follow in Birmingham, Portsmouth and Southampton. Nomination is by members of the public.

But extending the scheme England-wide would not mean the selection criteria would be diluted, Mr Grossman said. "What makes the blue plaque different from any other commemorative scheme in the world, as far as we know, is the rigour, the amount of historical research that goes into consideration of each candidate, and the care with which the panel studies that research. [We have] very lively debates about whether someone is deserving. People do get turned down."

The writers Wilkie Collins, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath were initially refused, then accepted, Mr Grossman said. Other turn-downs include the American composer Richard Rogers and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Their stays in London were not regarded as significant enough in their lives to warrant commemoration.

To qualify, a subject must have been dead at least 20 years, or a century must have elapsed since birth; they must be considered eminent by a majority of their profession or calling; they must have made an important contribution to human welfare or happiness; their name should be recognisable to the well-informed, and they must deserve national recognition.

* An exhibition celebrating nearly 150 years of the blue plaque scheme opened yesterday at Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner, London.

Blue plaques: 10 things you never knew

* The first London Blue Plaque, in 1867, commemorated Lord Byron. The house was later demolished.

* The oldest surviving plaque is to the French emperor Napoleon III, which was also put up in 1867, in King St, St James's – the only one erected during a candidate's lifetime.

* The novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) was the first woman to get a plaque. It was put up in Bolton St, W1, in 1885.

* The first plaque to a sportsman was to the cricketer W G Grace (1848-1915), in Mottingham, south-east London, in 1963.

* Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) was the first rock star to get a plaque. It was erected in Brook St, Mayfair, in 1997.

* One of the lesser known Blue Plaque recipients is the civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built London's sewerage system in the 1870s. His plaque is in Hamilton Terrace, St John's Wood.

* The shortest residence commemorated is probably that of Mahatma Gandhi, who once briefly lived in Powis Rd, Bromley-by-Bow.

* They do not commemorate just people. A plaque in Whitehall Place, SW1, marks the original site of Scotland Yard; one in Burrells Wharf, E14, is to mark the launch site of the world's biggest steamship, the Great Eastern.

* "Memorial tablets" were first proposed by William Ewart MP, in 1866.

* There are about 750 Blue Plaques in London.

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