With over 9000 plaques on buildings scattered throughout London, the Blue Plaque scheme is well known and in some central London streets the majority of buildings display a plaque (or plaques). What you may not be aware of is the “antiquity” of the scheme.
William Ewart, a Liberal MP, suggested that the government should start this scheme to honour significant London residents in 1863. This was rejected due to cost, but three years later the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) took the scheme on. It erected the first two plaques in 1867. The first commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street off Cavendish Square, in 1867. Unfortunately the plaque was destroyed with the demolition of the house. The second plaque in Kings Street St James was erected to commemorate the exiled French emperor Napoleon III London residence. This has survived.
William Ewart is in the select group who are commemorated with more than one plaque. English Heritage, the current custodians of the scheme, now restrict plaques to one per person, however many addresses that individual resided at. William Ewart is commemorated in central London but also his former house which is now Hampton Public Library in SW London. This is particularly fitting commemoration as, whilst an MP, William Ewart introduced a bill that became Britain’s first Public Library Act: setting up our network of free public libraries.
I think it is fair to say that for many years this scheme has favoured establishment figures and there is a large bias towards males. Recognising this, English Heritage is making concentrated efforts to get proposals from the public for female candidates. Currently only 13% of the total commemorate women.
Kensington & Chelsea have two blue plaques commemorating two significant female figures: Emmeline Pankhurst and Christobel Pankhurst, mother and daughter suffragette leaders, who lived at 50 Clarendon Road, Notting Hill, London, W11; and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), campaigner for Women’s Rights, who lived at 120 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, SW10.
Biographical details for these and other blue plaque entries can be found on the English Heritage website. However, for a more comprehensive detail biography, why not use your library membership to consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online. We subscribe to this title as part of own Online Reference Resources available remotely via the library website (take a look here for a previous post about this fantastic resource).
Finally, don’t forget our catalogue: you’ll find plenty of Blue Plaque guides to aid your research!