Weird London Blue Plaques

If you stop and think about it, blue plaques are amazing. For free, all over London (and the rest of the country) those that look up are treated to interesting tidbits from former residents and extraordinary citizens. But what I’m really interested in is the weird London blue plaques…

A Potted Plaque History

Blue plaques have graced London’s streets for over 150 years, the first being awarded to Lord Byron in 1867. Sadly that plaque disappeared, along with the building on Holles Street, in 1889.

At this point the scheme was organised by the Society of Arts, now the RSA, and today there are over 900 ‘official’ blue plaques.

But it’s not that simple (and not all of them are blue). After the RSA, London County Council assumed blue plaque authority. Then it passed to their successor the Greater London Council in 1965. When the GLC was abolished in 1986, ‘Heritage’ (today’s English Heritage) took over the job.

Firsts and Onlys

It seems sensible to start with the oldest surviving blue plaque, awarded to Napoleon III. As Napoleon I’s nephew he was exiled from France after the Battle of Waterloo and – after a return to France and daring escape  from prison – he moved smoothly into London’s high society, given membership of some of the famous St James’s gentlemen clubs nearby.

Installed in 1867, it’s the only plaque to be installed in the namesake’s lifetime. It also has the quirk of showing the imperial eagle; the symbol used by both Napoleon I and this one.

Installed in 1867, it’s the only plaque to be installed in the namesake’s lifetime. It also has the quirk of showing the imperial eagle; the symbol used by both Napoleon I and this one.

On the face of it, nothing seems that unusual about this plaque for dictionary-writing Dr Samuel Johnson who lived at 17 Gough Square (now a museum). That is however until you consider its location.

The City of London only has one blue plaque. And it’s not even blue! Erected by the Society of Arts in 1876, 3 years later the City of London decided it would take responsibility for it’s own blue plaque scheme. Henceforth they produced their own glazed square blue plaques within the square mile.

Not an official blue plaque, but I thought this deserved a mention nevertheless. Born in Tooting in 1903, Sidney George Lewis appeared in the Daily Mail on 18 September 1916 under the headline; ‘JOINED AT TWELVE’. Private S Lewis fought for six weeks at the Somme front after running away to join the East Sussex regiment in August 1915.

He was sent home in August 1916 after his Mother sent a copy of his birth certificate to the War Office and demanded his return. Not to be kept away, Lewis was back in the ranks of the army, still under age, in 1918. He joined theGuards Machine Gun Regiment and continued to serve in the Army Occupation of Austria after the war.

He joined the police force in Kingston and then signed up for WWII, this time in bomb disposal. Finally he took a well deserved rest and ran a pub in East Sussex. He died in 1969 aged 66.

Dedicated London Underground geek might recognise this name. It was Edward Johnston who crafted the ‘Johnston font’ in 1916. It’s still used across all TFL’s branding and signage and if you look closely, you’ll notice that this plaque uses it too!

There are only four English Heritage plaques which follow this pattern, all of whom are connected with London Underground; Frank Pick (Pioneering designer of the Underground), Harry Beck (designer of the iconic tube map) and Lord Albert Stanley Ashfield (first chairman of London Transport).

This is the only plaque I’ve seen which includes a little picture. It’s also one of only a small number dedicated to animals* (and the only one in London).

Before this address became The Calvary and Guards Club it was home to Herbert Barraud, Francis’ brother. When Hebert died in 1896 Francis presumably moved in and it was here that he painted the famous portrait of his dog ‘Nipper’, the painting titled ‘His Master’s Voice’. That image and name was bought by the Gramophone Company in 1899 and from that morphed the high street store HMV.

*I know you’re curious so to save you time searching, animal plaques around the UK include Mary the homing pigeon in Devon and Dolly the Sheep in Edinburgh!

Strange Jobs

If you search for any list of unusual blue plaques, Luke Howard also pops up. A successful manufacturing chemist, Howard was also a founding member of the philosophical group; the Askesian Society. It was to the group that he presented his paper ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ in 1803. Setting out the height and nature of clouds, it also suggested classification names – cirrus, stratus, cumulus and nimbus – that are still used today.

You can probably guess from the colour that this isn’t an official blue plaque, but I couldn’t not include it! A girl after my own heart (she, too was only 4ft 11″!) Edith Garraud was hired by the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) as their Jui-jitsu instructor.

Though it seems almost cartoonish today, this was serious for the Suffragettes. After the events of ‘Black Friday’ 1910, when the 300-strong suffragette protest were met with a wall of police and violence outside Parliament, they decided to meet further clashes with at least a bit of self-defence preparation. “It was an ideal way for them to handle being grabbed while in a crowd situation” says Martin Dixon, chairman of the British Jiu-Jitsu Association interview by the BBC in 2015.

Now above a restaurant on the edge of Chinatown, this handsome frontage used to be the wig and costume shop of Willy Clarkson who, at the height of his success, was hiring 10,000 wigs each Christmas!

He sounds like quite a character; small but with a wild beard and who spoke in an accent that was ‘Cockney, Jewish and guttural French’ rolled into one. By the time he died in 1934, a profile written about him said this spot was ‘crammed with the junk of a make believe life time’.

The original, who became the ‘unchallenged King of’ Clowns, lived at 8 Braynes Row, later known as Exmouth Market from 1818-1829. Grimaldi shaped that most bizarre of theatrical experiences – the pantomime – and held his final performance in 1828 in a pub theatre near Sadler’s Wells. Each year on the first Sunday of February (close to Grimaldi’s Birthday) Clowns gather for a special service in Dalston. You can read more about this strange tradition here.

He’d been fighting since 1805, but Tom Cribb’s big break came in 1811 when he beat Tom Molineaux in Leicestershire in front of  crowd of 20,000. The pub connection is because from 1819-1839 he ran the Union Arms pub on this site, colloquially known as ‘Cribb’s Parlour’.

Another plaque can be seen on the pub too, part of the series celebrating Black history across the UK. Bill Richmond has fought Tom Cribb in October 1805 and lost after a gruelling 25 rounds. It seems the pair stayed friends though as the plaque below suggests.

It’s good to see these additions to London’s plaques, especially as English Heritage admits that black and ethnic minority figures are only mentioned in less than 5%. You can read about another London black history plaque here.

There’s also a lack of plaques celebrating contributions from women (they account for around 13% of blue plaques) so I thought I’d share a couple of my favourites, the first can be found in Spitalfields;

Anna, her sister Mary and their niece (also Mary) moved into this corner house on Princelet Street in the 1720s, when Anna was in her 40s. It was from here that she established herself as a brilliant fabric designer and formidable businesswoman. At her peak she was designing 80 intricate brocaded silks a year, some of which can be found in the V&A.

It doesn’t seem an easy task; to convert a notorious pub into the teetotal ‘Dewdrop Inn: For Education and Joy’. But that’s what Mary Hughes did in 1926, making the move from affluent Mayfair in order to serve the poor of the East End. After her death, the Dewdrop was renamed Mary Hughes House.

History Repeats

There are a few examples of ‘double plaques’, houses two blue plaques, but it’s rare you see such a greedy example as this one below. Not content with hosting one Prime Minister, Chatham House on St James’s Square can boast three!

On a similar theme, you can also find these neighbours in Mayfair;

Two extraordinary musicians, separated by a wall and 200 years! This was where Handel wrote ‘Messiah’ and ‘Zadok the Priest’ (used at every coronation since 1727). It’s also where Hendrix had his most successful years, enjoying the afterglow of his tour and album ‘Are You Experienced?’ He stayed here for a few months in 1968 before leaving to tour the USA in March 1969.

Their side-by-side blue plaques are now the location for the Handel Hendrix Museum, where you can walk through the history of both artists while listening to their tunes.

Just Plain Wrong

Now as much as I love blue plaques. It doesn’t mean they always get it exactly right. Here are a few clangers;

The above should read John Dryden, whose plaque was erected here in 1870. Later research found that the plaques is in fact on the wrong house! It should be next door on number 44.

Thomas almost made it into the ‘strange jobs’ category. That was until I spotted that actually his name contains a typo! His surname is De Quincey. Kind of fitting though, that the man who wrote about drug addiction is missing an ‘e’.

There’s nothing wrong with the contents of the plaque, but I couldn’t help notice its strange shape. It’s not that the round edges have been painted over, the ceramic plaque was created especially in that shape in order to squeeze between the narrow windows in 1988! Perhaps a bit awkward for the man that put the uber-patriotic ‘Rule Britannia’ to music.

Oh how I wish this one were true. Sadly – as you can probably guess – it’s a fake. Not only did Carswell Prentice not invented the supermarket trolley (it was American businessman Sylvan Goldman) but ‘The Society for the Promotion of Historic Buildings’ is also phoney, it’s listed business address being this house.

Where to find Weird London blue plaques

How do you get a blue plaque?

Got someone you’d like to see recognised? As long as they’ve been dead 20 years (to ensure an enduring reputation) and have made ‘a positive contribution to human welfare and happiness’* you can nominate them here.

*As stated by English Heritage’s Guide to London Blue Plaques, published 2016.

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