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."