London has been home to some of the greatest innovators the world has known whether it be in art, literature, medicine, design, industry and just about any other field of interest you can think of.
We write reports on about 80 a year and about nine will be chosen
Today, English Heritage is in charge of deciding who is worthy of a plaque. Members of the public can submit a famous person for consideration, providing he/she is twenty years dead or her/his centenary has passed. The organisation employs historians such as Howard Spencer to investigate the candidates who have been submitted. Spencer says, “We write a preliminary report on them and that goes to the Blue Plaques panel and they decide whether or not to shortlist them. The resources have never been that great and at the moment they are diminishing. We write reports on about 80 a year and about nine will be chosen.”
The Royal Society of Arts established the scheme in 1866, the first being a plaque erected to commemorate Lord Byron in 1867. By the 1960s it had passed onto the Greater London Council who decided to broaden their parameters for those who could be included – an ethos English Heritage keeps to this day. When Jimi Hendrix’s Plaque was erected in 1997 it was met with some objection from those of a more conservative disposition – an objection many argue as blinkered considering Jimi Hendrix will be remembered in the centuries to come as much of a musical innovator as his neighbour Handel.
Spencer says, “There were certain people at the time that got upset by it but equally a lot of people were very pleased. The whole point of the scheme is to recognise all forms of human of achievement and in particular reference to people whose time in London was very important to their career and that was the clincher for him. There is a very nice duality, the fact that plaque is next door to Handel’s and it has proved very popular since.”
For those of you interested in exploring the darker side of London a new app has come out called Black Plaques. These virtual plaques are dotted all around London and can be located using the application with augmented reality: looking through your phone screen photos are overlaid on to the actual site. Examples include the streets where Jack the Ripper murdered his victims, the regency sex shop in Convent Garden where gut condoms were sold or Smithfield’s market where Henry VIII was fond of boiling alive those convicted of high treason.
It is all rather macabre but Ambrose Hide, who created the app was keen to expose the hidden secrets of London in the light of more institutional history which seems keen to present a clean version of the past. Hide says, “I was reading a book on the reformation and I discovered this story of this chap who was imprisoned in St. Pauls and who was subsequently murdered on the orders of the church officials by having a hot needle put up his nose. However, when I read the weighty tome on St. Pauls that was published on its 800th anniversary it isn’t mentioned at all.”
Standing on Siddal’s grave you realize what a crazy thing it was to do
Hide claims the main idea behind the app is ‘to show where the shit happens.’ Though he has a great respect for English Heritage’s Blue Plaque scheme he does point out that sometimes placing a blue plaque on a house where a famous person was born can fail to evoke the interesting historical events that so defined the person in question. He cites the example of Rossetti of which there is a commemorative plaque erected at the site of the house of his birth (or rather where the house used to be before it was demolished).
Black Plaques, on the other hand, leads you to Highgate cemetery where his wife Elizabeth Siddal was buried. At her funeral Rossetti placed his book of poetry in her coffin as a romantic gesture. Seven years later however, he decided he wanted to publish ths book of poetry and had her exhumed in order to retrieve the book. Hide says, “These are stories where things happen. Standing on Siddal’s grave you realize what a crazy thing it was to do.”
For Londoners with a keen interest in social history this app is well worth downloading and, only costing 69p it makes for a very cheap but gruesomely insightful day out.
To purchase the app simply click here.
For more information on Blue Plaques go to www.english-heritage.co.uk