The Magazine

Signing the Blues

How London commemorates its resident immortals.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Lived in London

Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them

Edited by Emily Cole

Yale, 656 pp., $85

Leigh Hunt, the littérateur and friend of Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Lamb, is now little read, but his autobiography vividly recalls early 19th-century Chelsea. Of 22 Upper Cheyne Row, where he lived with his wife and seven children, Hunt wrote:

The house was of that old-fashioned sort which I have always loved best, familiar to the eyes of my parents, and associated with my childhood. It had seats in the windows, a small third room on the first floor, of which I made a sanctum .  .  . and .  .  . a few lime trees in front, which in their due season diffused a fragrance.

After years spent eluding creditors--literary journalism then being no more remunerative than it is now--Hunt welcomed the peacefulness of Chelsea. "I felt for some weeks," he wrote, "as if I could sit still for ever, embalmed in the silence." Only the songs of street sellers broke the riverside quiet. Hunt particularly recalled "an old seller of fish .  .  . whose cry of 'shrimps as large as prawns' was such a regular, long-drawn, and truly pleasing melody, that in spite of his hoarse and, I am afraid, drunken voice, I used to wish for it of an evening, and hail it when it came."

This is precisely the sort of domestic history that the blue plaques, set up throughout London by the Greater London Council, London County Council, and English Heritage, were created to evoke. When Hunt lived in Chelsea
in the early 1830s, it was a cheap, uncrowded, unfashionable district. His neighbors, Jane Welsh Carlyle and her combustible husband, paid £35 a year for their rambling house at 24 Cheyne Row, which is now the Carlyle Museum. Later the district would cater more to plutocrats than bohemians. Still, the list of Chelsea residents who have received blue plaques is impressive, including as it does Lillie Langtry, Arnold Bennett, Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Sir Stafford Cripps, Augustus John, Sylvia Pankhurst, Hilaire Belloc, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Scott of Antarctica, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great civil engineer.

In this wonderful tour d'horizon of the blue plaque scheme, Emily Cole relates how the idea for the plaques, first floated by the reformer William Ewart in 1863, and carried out by the civil servant Laurence Gomme, grew out of the same solicitude for preserving England's past that inspired the founding of the National Portrait Gallery (1856), Society of the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (1866), and the Dictionary of National Biography (1882).

Since Gomme took over the project, honorees have been chosen in accordance with simple criteria: They must have been dead at least 20 years and made some signal contribution to their profession. Of course, there have been exceptions: Gladstone, Gandhi, Marconi, and John Galsworthy all got plaques sooner than 20 years after their deaths. And beginning in 1954, the practice ended of marking sites, rather than actual residences, where honorees lived.

Ideally, plaques commemorate both biographical and architectural history. Apropos the plaque at 91 Gower Street for the architect George Dance, who designed Newgate Prison and the Royal College of Surgeons, one historian pointed out: "It is no doubt fitting that the architect should have chosen as his London home for many years one of the simple but excellently proportioned brick built terrace houses that were such an important contribution to the Georgian townscape." Dance was also responsible for the circus and crescent layouts that would become so characteristic of the city's town planning. And he drew up ambitious plans for the redevelopment of London's waterfront which, of course, were never executed.

Another plaque of architectural interest is the one affixed to the former residence of W. S. Gilbert at 39 Harrington Gardens in South Kensington, where the dramatist wrote The Mikado, The Yeoman of the Guard, and The Gondoliers. On the gable of this fantastic dwelling Gilbert
requested his architects to insert a sailing ship to commemorate his descent from the seafarer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. When one guest assumed that the ship was an allusion to H.M.S. Pinafore, the dramatist curtly corrected him: "Sir, I do not put my trademark on my house."

Cole includes much out-of-the-way biographical and historical detail in her book and a rich gallimaufry of prints, photographs, drawings, and paintings illustrating the people and places described in the text. She deserves high praise for putting together such an inspired history. Coffee table books rarely come packed with so many good things. The book's maps are particularly good. Splendidly hand-drawn by Malcolm Fowler, they nicely locate the whereabouts of the plaques and quantify their number by district.

Hackney, for example, may only have five blue plaques, but they commemorate an arresting array of famous Londoners. There is a plaque for Marie Lloyd, the great music hall artist whom T. S. Eliot admired for "her understanding of the people and sympathy with them, and the people's recognition of the fact that she embodied the virtues which they genuinely most respected in private life." Another for Joseph Priestley, the Presbyterian minister and Enlightenment philosopher, whose support for the French Revolution eventually led to his leaving England and taking up residence in Pennsylvania, where he died waiting for the Second Coming. And still another for Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, whose hero James Joyce considered "the true symbol of British conquest" because, "shipwrecked on a lonely island, with a knife and a pipe in his pocket, [he became] an architect, carpenter, knife-grinder, astronomer, baker, shipwright, potter, saddler, farmer, tailor, umbrella-maker, and cleric."

As these Hackney plaques show, even in one of London's least glamorous locales, history abounds.

In fashionable Mayfair, 45 plaques recall some of the most powerful figures in English history, including Lord Clive, Lord Palmerston, and Lord Nelson. Then there are plaques commemorating the great dandies Beau Brummel and
Benjamin Disraeli, the former of whom ended his days in a French lunatic asylum after running up gambling debts he could not repay. And there is a plaque for a man who proved that, in England, there are not only second acts but third and fourth and fifth acts. General John Burgoyne, "Gentleman Johnny" as he was called, may have surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga in 1777, but he went on to have a lucrative playwriting career after joining Charles James Fox and the Whigs in parliament and serving as commander in chief in Ireland. The house he had Robert Adam furnish for him at 10 Hertford Street was originally designed by Henry Holland, who also designed Carlton House, Brooks Club, and the Brighton Pavilion.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Irish playwright who had enormous successes with The Rivals and The School for Scandal, also lived in Hertford Street until his beloved theater, Drury Lane, burned down and he had to sell his furniture to keep the bailiffs at bay--only escaping debtor's prison, as Cole remarks, because his doctor insisted that moving the distressed playwright would kill him.

Sheridan recalls something that the perennially hard-up Cyril Connolly came to recognize: that London "was created for rich young men to shop in, dine in, ride in, get married in, go to theaters in, and die in as respected householders. It is a city for the unmarried upper classes, not for the poor."

This has always spurred London's enterprising poor to escape poverty. George Leybourne, a.k.a. "Champagne Charlie," was the poor son of a currier, who got his start, together with Gracie Fields and Charlie Chaplin, at Collins Music Hall, Islington Green, when he was still in his teens. After scoring hits with "Champagne Charlie" and "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" in the 1860s, Leybourne was paid the unprecedented annual salary of £1,500--mostly by men in the drinks trade eager to have him tout their bubbly. At the age of 42, however, after nearly 30 years on the music hall stage, Leybourne was dead of cirrhosis of the liver. A plaque commemorates his fizzy rise and fall at 136 Engelfield Road, Islington.

That so many dedicated to amusing London came to smash would not have surprised Dickens. In his moving essay "Night Walks," describing the noctambulatory forays he made through the city after the death of his father, whose own reversals landed him in the Marshalsea Prison, Dickens described the misery that gives so much of London its bleak distinction. There are no blue plaques to mark the sleeping places of London's poor, whose houseless heads and unfed sides, whose looped and windowed raggedness, inspire no memorials. But there is a magnificent blue plaque commemorating Dickens's residence at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, where he wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. Erected in 1903, it predates the opening of the Dickens Museum on this site in 1925.

The wretchedness that Dickens encountered in the city at night is one reason why London has always produced a high proportion of good popular writers with no interest in bothering readers with life's grimmer realities. In Mayfair, blue plaques commemorate Somerset Maugham, who shared a flat with his wife, Syrie Wellcome, the interior decorator, at 6 Chesterfield Street before he took up with Gerald Haxton, an exuberant alcoholic who was fond of diving into empty swimming pools; Nancy Mitford, who worked at Heywood Hill's bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, before winning fame and fortune with her popular novels and biographies; and P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote 10 of his 90-odd novels, including Summer Lightning, Very Good, Jeeves, and Right Ho, Jeeves at 17 Dunraven (formerly Norfolk) Street.

Wodehouse's stepdaughter described the house as full of servants with strict orders never to disturb their literary master. "It is understood that he is thinking deep thoughts and planning great novels, but when all the smoke has cleared away it really means that he is either asleep or eating an apple or reading Edgar Wallace."

If the blue plaques are a kind of historical stock-taking, they recall the personal stock-taking of the residents they memorialize. Cardinal Manning, for example, who followed Newman into the Roman Catholic Church in 1851, has a plaque in Westminster commemorating his residence at 22 Carlisle Place, a forbiddingly austere palace, which remained the residence of the archbishops of Westminster until 1901. From his bedroom window, Manning, who toyed with the idea of entering politics as a young man, could see the Houses of Parliament, which caused him to reflect in old age: "If I had been able to have my own way and to go there, what a rascal I should have been by this time!"

Edward Short is a writer in New York.