February 22, 2019
London’s blue plaques celebrate influential residents—but where are all the women?
by Nikki Griffiths
If you’ve ever meandered around the historic streets of London, you may have come across a blue plaque or two adorning the sides of old buildings. These plaques proudly celebrate and commemorate notable figures from the past, placed at their former abodes. Every year, new plaques are added and currently there are over 900 strewn across the capital. This year’s batch have just been announced and it’s a strong line up, including writers Angela Carter and Martha Gellhorn, music legend Bob Marley, and filmmaker and gay rights campaigner Derek Jarman.
The scheme is currently run by English Heritage, a charity that manages over 400 historic monuments, buildings, and sites across the country, from country houses to prehistoric sites and medieval castles. But the scheme is as historic as the people and buildings it celebrates, having been established in 1866 when it was first run by the Society of Arts. The first ever plaque commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, in 1867, but this house was demolished in 1889. So the oldest plaque currently in existence is on King Street, Westminster, dedicated to Napoleon III.
The London County Council took over the scheme at the turn of the century when it became known as the “Indication of Houses of Historical Interest in London” (catchy) and, amongst others, they installed Charles Dickens’ plaque on his house in Doughty Street which you can visit today as the Charles Dickens Museum. The torch was then passed to the Greater London Council before landing with English Herritage.
The scheme has come under criticism in recent years because of its strong bias towards celebrating men—at the end of last year, only 14 percent of blue plaques were dedicated to women. Perhaps not a surprise thinking back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when women didn’t even have the right to vote, but a shameful state of affairs in today’s society. Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director and Secretary of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel, said in a statement in October last year:
“The London blue plaques scheme is over 150 years old and the dominance of plaques to men reflects a historic blindness to both the role women have played in our society and the type of roles deemed worthy of celebration.
“At English Heritage we’ve long recognised this and have been doing what we can to address it, but the blue plaques scheme relies on public nominations, and we need their help.”
The scheme depends upon suggestions from the public, and depressingly, of the nominations received since 2016, only a third were for women. To combat this, in 2016 English Heritage launched its ‘plaques for women’ campaign, which has been supported by national treasure Dame Judi Dench who has called for change:
“If people want to find out about our London history, they can go and just stand for a minute outside and look at a house where you know that person has lived – I think that’s just wonderful. So far the scheme honours some brilliant women; Florence Nightingale, Ava Gardner and the Pankhursts, but there are many, many more unsung female heroes who deserve recognition. So nominate the women you admire, the women who did great and remarkable things throughout history, and the women who did not go quietly. English Heritage needs your help.”
As a result, more than half of the people awarded plaques by its expert panel in the last two years have been women. It is great to see this reflected in the plaques going up this year. Award-winning Angela Carter (one of my personal favourite authors) will have her blue plaque placed at her former home in Clapham where she “spent the last sixteen years of her life. She often tutored her then student, Kazuo Ishiguro, at the kitchen table and received fellow writers —J.G. Ballard, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie—as guests” so says the English Heritage website.
Martha Gellhorn, who died in 1998, was an important and influential journalist who reported first-hand on the Allied invasion of France in 1944. Her plaque goes up at Cadogan Square, where she lived for twenty-eight years. Lilian Lindsay was the first woman to qualify as a dentist in Britain—no easy feat in the late 1800s. Her plaque will be found at the British Dental Association’s headquarters in Russell Square, Bloomsbury.
Traveller, archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell’s plaque has caused a slight kerfuffle. Graham Best, who has written a biography of Bell, said to The Guardian’s Mark Brown, “She didn’t really have anything to do with London apart from her grandmother living there in a lovely house in Cadogan Square … Is this a case of cultural appropriation?”
English Heritage say: “Bell’s plaque will mark a family home in Chelsea that served as her London base for over 40 years, from 1884 until her last visit to London in 1925.” Make of it what you will: a plaque is going up.
To qualify for a blue plaque the recipient must have been dead for more than 20 years, the London building in which they lived or worked should still survive and they must have “made a great and lasting impact on society.” If you’d like to make a nomination, you can find details here. And next time you’re in London, why not look out for these iconic markers and pay respects to those London-based influencers who left such indelible marks on the world?
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.