Blue plaques have been informing and puzzling residents and tourists to Britain for over a century now. Implemented by William Ewart MP and the Royal Society of Arts in 1866 to commemorate Britain's famous residents, the scheme has grown dramatically, with over 760 plaques now in existence. Proposed by the public and selected by a committee since the London County Council standardised selection procedures, there are currently over 100 proposals made a year. But how did all this come to be?
The Royal Society launched the scheme in 1867 with the unveiling of a "commemorative tablet" for Lord Byron. Although Byron's plaque was a blue ceramic disc the manufacturers Minton quickly dropped blue for chocolate brown to save money. Thirty-five were erected by 1901 but less than half now survive, with Napoleon III the earliest plaque left.
The London County Council replaced them in 1901, with Kensington's very own Lord Macaulay amongst their first plaques. 1901 to 1938 was a time of experimentation with designs including ribbons and wreathes, bronze, lead and stone and shapes like squares and rectangles. A simple, blue, ceramic Doulton disc was chosen in 1938 and the blue plaque was born. Up until the London County Council was abolished in 1965 they had unveiled over 250 plaques.
Next came the Greater London Council. During a brief reign from 1965 to 1986 they erected an incredible 262 plaques. Broadening the selection criteria, they broke the white Victorian male domination, approving candidates as diverse as Sylvia Pankhurst and Chaim Weizmann.
English Heritage took over in 1986 and still run the show today. Responsible for over 200 new plaques and overseeing increasingly more every year, the scheme continues to go from strength to strength. Anyone interested in further details, especially on how to propose a candidate, should visit the excellent English Heritage website on our links page.
Mill's blue plaque on 17 Kensington Square
Low's blue plaque outside Melbury Court
Smollet's plaque which he shared with Chelsea China