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 and Chelsea libraries holds a nationally renowned biography collection at Kensington Central Library (we’ve blogged about it before). There are over 80,000 printed works with over 1000 new titles added each year.
As part of our celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Two of our Triborough Stock Librarians (who are responsible for the maintenance of the collection), Sally Connew- Volpe and Andy Norton highlight a few of the most important and often notorious characters from the Regency Era who feature in our biography collection.
The collection features numerous biographies, memoirs, diaries and volumes of letters by and about the contemporaries of Jane Austen.
Charles Babbage: (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) was an English mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer who originated the concept of a programmable computer. Considered a “father of the computer”, Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs
William Blake: (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of poetry and the visual arts.
George IV: (12 August 1762 – 26 June 1830) was king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and king of Hanover following the death of his father, George III, on 29 January 1820, until his own death ten years later. From 1811 until his accession, he served as Prince Regent during his father’s final mental illness.
Beau Brummell: (7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840) was an iconic figure in Regency England, the arbiter of men’s fashion, and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. He established the mode of dress for men that rejected overly ornate fashions for one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored clothing. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and above all immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. Among Byron’s best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the short lyric “She Walks in Beauty.” He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets.
Pierce Egan : (1772–1849) was an early British journalist, sportswriter, and writer on popular culture. He born in the London suburbs, where he spent his life. By 1812 he had established himself as the country’s leading ‘reporter of sporting events’, which at the time meant mainly prize-fights and horse-races. The result of these reports, which won him a countrywide reputation for wit and sporting knowledge, appeared in the four volumes of Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism, which appeared, lavishly illustrated, between 1818-24.
Elizabeth Fry: (21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845) Fry was an English prison reformer, social reformer and, as a Quaker, a Christian philanthropist. She has sometimes been referred to as the “angel of prisons”. Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane, and she was supported in her efforts by George IV.
Lady Hamilton: Emma, Lady Hamilton (26 April 1765 – 15 January 1815) is best remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson.
Edward Jenner: (17 May 1749 – 26 January 1823) was an English physician and scientist from Berkeley, Gloucestershire, who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine. He is often called “the father of immunology”, and his work is said to have “saved more lives than the work of any other man”.
Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, KB (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) was a flag officer famous for his service in the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was noted for his inspirational leadership and superb grasp of strategy and unconventional tactics, which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories. He was wounded several times in combat, losing one arm and the sight in one eye. Of his several victories, the best known and most notable was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, during which he was shot and killed.
Sir John Soane, RA : (10 September 1753 – 20 January 1837) was an English architect who specialised in the Neo-Classical style. The son of a bricklayer, he rose to the top of his profession, becoming professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and an official architect to the Office of Works. He received a knighthood in 1831.
Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (Caroline Amelia Elizabeth; later Queen Caroline; 17 May 1768 – 7 August 1821) was the Queen consort of King George IV of the United Kingdom from 29 January 1820 until her death. Between 1795 and 1820, she was Princess of Wales.
Thomas De Quincey (15 August 1785 – 8 December 1859) was an English essayist, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).
Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet, popular throughout much of the world during his time. Scott was the first English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), was a British soldier and statesman, a native of Ireland from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy,and one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century.
William Wilberforce (24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; 30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851) was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein. She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
All of the titles featured above and many more are available for loan from Kensington Central Library.
You can also find more information about these Regency Era characters online by visiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (you’ll need a library membership to access this database outside of the library.