13 September 2011
Beyond the Blue Plaque
Blue plaques are a common sight around London. The scheme, founded by the (Royal) Society of Arts in 1866, is now run by English Heritage and to date around 850 plaques (not always blue!) have been installed in the capital to commemorate the residence of notable figures.
Benjamin Franklin House at 36 Craven Street is marked by a unique decorative scroll plaque, installed in 1914, revealing that it was home to Benjamin Franklin, the printer, scientist and Founding Father of the United States. An earlier Society of Arts plaque was commissioned for the house, but confusion over a change of door number resulted in the large brown plaque being mounted on the wrong building. The mistake was rectified this year and Franklin’s original 1869 plaque can now be seen at the correct address, on an interior wall.
Two other London Shh houses feature Society of Arts plaques. In 1876, a plaque was installed at Gough Square to commemorate the residence where Dr Samuel Johnson compiled his great Dictionary of the English Language. Dr Johnson’s House was a fitting venue for the launch of the book ‘Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them’, published by Yale University Press in 2009. The Society of Arts plaque celebrating John Keats’ residence in Hampstead, the setting that inspired his most famous poetry including ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, was erected in 1896. Fewer than half of the thirty five Society of Arts plaques remain in existence; London Shh is proud to display three of these.
In 1901, the scheme passed to the London County Council, and became known as the 'Indication of Houses of Historical Interest in London'. Two London Shh houses are adorned with these plaques including 7 Hammersmith Terrace where Sir Emery Walker, the typographer and antiquary lived. Another ornate porcelain plaque on City Road, Islington, denotes John Wesley’s House and chapel. Plaques varied in colour in the early stages of the scheme – blue, brown, terracotta, sage – and were made of different materials. Only in the 1940s was the iconic ‘blue’ plaque standardised.
Since 1986, English Heritage has managed the blue plaque scheme and has awarded a total of four plaques to just two London Shh houses. Separated by two centuries, composer George Frideric Handel and guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived in adjoining properties at Brook Street in the West End – now Handel House Museum. The plaques on the exteriors hint at the story of two hugely influential international musicians who both made a career and home in London. Hendrix first found fame in the UK and Handel composed some of his most famous pieces at Brook Street, including Messiah and Zadok the Priest.
The Freud Museum also has more than one blue plaque, in this case honouring two generations of the same family. The plaques for Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, and his daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer in the same field, were unveiled in 2002 by comedian John Cleese, making them the most recent of the London Shh plaques.
Next time you are exploring the capital, see how many plaques you can spot. The plaques are often an indication of the fascinating stories to be found inside. The London Shh houses are more than just buildings, they help visitors explore historical stories and the personalities of the people who called them home. We also want to encourage people to venture off the beaten path, beyond the blue plaque. Burgh House, a beautiful Grade I listed building and home of the Hampstead Museum and William Morris’ Kelmscott House may not have plaques, but they are wonderful heritage gems.
By James Spellane, Operations Intern at Benjamin Franklin House
Photo credits: all images are courtesy of London Shh houses, except John Wesley’s plaque image courtesy of Jamie Barras