Ever spotted a curious blue circle around London town dedicated to someone important?
If you’ve taken the time to stroll round The Big Smoke, looking up admiring the architure, you might have noticed the odd blue circle commemorating someone.
Well, those blue plaques are put up by the English Heritage to link people from the past to buildings of the present. And the scheme is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
Here’s a few fun facts about the scheme to impress friend’s and family with…
– There’s more than 900 plaques dotted across the capital, on all sorts of buildings, to honour the notable men and women who’ve lived or worked in them.
– The first London blue plaque, unveiled in 1867, commemorated Lord Byron. However, his house in Holles Street, Cavendish Square, was demolished in 1889. It’s now the John Lewis store.
– The oldest official plaque, still in existence, is dedicated to the French Emperor Napoleon III, in King Street, St James’s.
– Famous figures who’ve unveiled plaques include Nelson Mandela (anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Jo Slovo), Yoko Ono (plaque to John Lennon), Prince Charles (Earl and Countess of Mountbatten), Margaret Thatcher (first female MP Nancy Astor) and Pete Townshend (Jimi Hendrix).
– A small number of London houses bear two official plaques.
– People who propose blue plaques are sometimes later commemorated themselves. Anna Freud unveiled the plaque to her father, Sigmund, in 1956. Her own plaque was erected alongside her father’s in 2002.
– To celebrate 150 years of the London blue plaque scheme, six new ones have been created, including playwright Samuel Beckett, ballerina Margot Fonteyn and actress Ava Gardner.
– The plaques are nominated by the public. A couple of caveats – the significant figure has to have been dead for 20 years and the building where they worked, or lived still standing.
Memorials to misadventure
While many buildings have the blue circle of approval, others have a black plaque against them.
From misadventure and macabre secrets, to the downright peculiar, here’s some of the more sinister places in London…
Underwear looted from Buckingham Palace
In 1837, royal stalker Edward Jones snuck into Buckingham Palace and pilfered Queen Victoria’s bedsheets. Not content, after breaking in on another occasion he legged it as far as St James’s Street before the police caught up with him. This time he’d stuffed a pair of the queen’s undies down his trousers!
Putrid gases pumped up Big Ben
In the summer of 1858 the river that served as the city’s sewer reached boiling pint. The Great Stink overwhelmed Westminster. To resolve the situation, it was suggested they seal off vents in sewers around the area, then pipe it up a chimney and burn it off. The ‘chimney’ was the Big Ben Clock Tower. Except, the fumes wouldn’t light. So, instead, a fire was lit at the bottom. Luckily, someone spotted explosive coal gas was leaking into the sewer, which would have blown Big Ben sky high! It took another 15 years to solve the smelly problem.
If you amble across Kennington Park you’ll notice a series of bumps. Look at an aerial snap in summer and you’ll see a distinct grid pattern. They’re the outlines of the Kennington Park Trenches – a WWII air raid shelter. At 8pm on Tuesday, 15 October 1940, as hundreds took shelter there, a 50lb bomb struck one end of the trench. Research suggests 104 people were killed that night, buried alive, yet only 48 bodies were recovered. The rest lie unidentified under the grass.
John Wilkes Statue
Member of Parliament, John Wilkes, was considered hideously ugly. So much so, doctors warned him not to let pregnant women see his face for fear he’d harm their unborn child! Despite this, he was a scandalous womaniser with a renowned wit. The statue erected to him on Fetter Lane, in 1988, is particularly kind, though it’s the only cross-eyed statue in London.
This has zero connection with sweet, after dinner desserts. It was once named Red Rose Lane, as it ran towards an area inhabited by butchers. However, after removing the saleable bits of meat, the butchers would dump the remains in the street. The bloated bits of the animal gut were known as ‘pudding’ and, sometime in the 14th century, the association with animal bowels led to the lane being renamed.
St Paul’s Cathedral: Drop a bombshell
Winston Churchill fully understood how the exquisite Cathedral kept British morale up during WWII, so ordered it to be saved ‘at all costs.’ It meant what happened on 10 October 1940 went unreported… A 500lb bomb blasted through the east end of the Cathedral’s roof, causing extensive damage. It was quickly patched up, with the myth St Paul’s survived the Blitz in tact.
Who would you like to see with a blue plaque? Or maybe you know of a black plaque worth mentioning…