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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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.