Who Slept Here? London’s Historic Blue Plaques Under Threat

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REUTERS/Toby Melville

Former South African president Nelson Mandela unveils an English Heritage Blue Plaque dedicated to South African freedom fighters Joe Slovo and Ruth First, in London, July 11, 2003.

London has long been a city tied to its past. Tourists from around the world flock to admire its historic squares, bridges and most notably, famous homes. It has hosted everyone from celebrated musicians to world-changing politicians, their brief sojourns or longer stays commemorated by the trademark circular blue plaques found dotted around the city.

However the blue plaque scheme could soon be a thing of the past: thanks to a 34% funding cut, English Heritage, the government body concerned with historic preservation, has announced that the team that maintains the blue plaques will be reduced to two people; the program will be largely suspended while English Heritage looks for alternative means of funding.

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The blue plaque scheme was suggested in 1863 as a way of establishing “memorial tablets” to London’s most notable residents. The idea was soon picked up by the Royal Society of Arts and in 1867, the group put up its first plaque to mark the birthplace of the poet Lord Byron at 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square. Ironically for a scheme intended in part to prevent historic houses from demolition, Byron’s birth home was destroyed in 1889.

Despite the less than auspicious start, the plaque program thrived. One of the oldest schemes of its kind in the world, responsibility for its maintenance has changed hands many times over the years, from the Royal Society of Arts to the London County Council to the Greater London Council and then to English Heritage, which has run the program since 1986.

Only twice before in its nearly 150-year history has the scheme been curtailed, during the austerity years of World Wars I and II — making this the first peacetime suspension of the program.

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English Heritage explained that the ceramic plaques, which cost more than $1,600 each, would only be erected for the already shortlisted nominations as they search for alternative funding. No more new signs will be considered until at least 2014, when new proposals for funding will be announced.

“English Heritage remains committed to the Blue Plaques scheme that has done so much to inspire Londoners and visitors with the history of the capital and its inhabitants,” the group said in a statement.

Famous names commemorated with plaques include Jimi Hendrix, Charles Dickens and Enid Blyton, as well as Indian patriot Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, comedian Joseph Grimaldi and, most recently, the late British historian and broadcaster A.J.P. Taylor. (Plaques are generally erected posthumously.)

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Given the scheme’s popularity, the suspension will likely not be the end of the blue plaque program. There is the potential of introducing a modern twist, perhaps using QR code technology—something museums in London have already begun experimenting with—to give smart phone users an interactive history of one of the world’s most history-steeped cities.