It was 1968 and an American pop guitarist had recently moved into the third-floor flat of a Georgian townhouse in Mayfair. But despite his global fame, the music fans who rang the doorbell at 23 Brook Street were not here for Jimi Hendrix. In a strange synchronicity of the city’s history, Hendrix’s flat was next door to the former home of another musical virtuoso: composer George Frideric Handel, who lived at number 25 Brook Street for 36 years from 1723.
“Fans hoping to see Handel’s house would frequently ring next door,” says Simon Daniels, director of the newly restored Handel Hendrix House, a museum on the site of two of the most famous blue plaqued homes. “Handel’s blue plaque was ambiguously located back then,” he continues. “Visitors, you can imagine, were rather surprised at the sight of Jimi Hendrix opening the door!”
Handel’s blue plaque was the first awarded to a musician, and was erected on the townhouses in Brook Street in 1870 by the London Society of Arts. Hendrix, meanwhile, was the first rock star to be awarded an official blue plaque, installed on the three-storey townhouse by English Heritage in 1997.
The world’s oldest historical marking scheme, ‘blue plaques’ (which may or may not be blue) are permanent signs installed on sites in England to commemorate links between the location and a famous person, company, event or a former building which occupied the site.
The term popularly encompasses plaques that are part of the ‘official’ London scheme, which was established by the Society of Arts in 1867 – and has been run by English Heritage since 1986 – but also unofficial schemes administered nationwide by a range of bodies, including local authorities, residents’ associations and esoteric groups including the Centre for Pagan Studies and the British Comedy Society (formerly the Dead British Comic Society).
Soon the official London blue plaque scheme – which since 1984 has used mid-blue roundel plaques made by Cornish ceramist couple Frank and Sue Ashworth, with their famous upright K-type font – will expand across England, in a tandem scheme administered by Historic England, which was announced this month.
Like English Heritage’s London scheme, the official national scheme will be open to public nominations subject to the criteria (for famous people): that the nominee has been dead for 20 years or has passed the centenary of their birth; is considered eminent by the majority of members of their profession, or has made an outstanding contribution to human welfare or happiness; and lived or worked at the property in question for a significant period (in time or significance) within their life and work.
In recent years the London scheme has faced criticism for being too male and pale (of the more than 990 plaques currently in place in London, 85% commemorate men and only two per cent commemorate black Londoners), and for celebrating figures with problematic biographies. The latter includes Clive of India – a man implicated in a famine that killed three million people in Bengal and reviled by his contemporaries for his corruption – whose blue plaque is mounted on the Barclay Square house he bought in 1761. In 2016, English Heritage set up a working group to bring more diversity and equality to the London blue plaque scheme, but have since stated that no historic blue plaque will be torn down.
John Munch, 79, and his wife Judy Hendershott, 83, have lived in a blue-plaqued home on Bennett Park in Blackheath for 23 and 40 years respectively. With three blue plaques, the tree lined cul-de-sac is one of the most decorated streets in London, with signs installed for documentary filmmaking pioneers G.P.O (2000), comic artist Donald McGill (1977), who was known for his saucy postcards of large-bottomed women, and, on John and Judy’s home, in commemoration Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, an English astronomer, physicist and mathematician who was involved in expounding Einstein’s theory of relativity.
For the couple, the blue plaque is, “a total positive” John says. “We do get tour groups outside, as it’s on the tourist circuit with the Greenwich observatory nearby,” he says, “but they’re no nuisance.” Learned friends, Judy notes, have ‘gone bananas’ over the years when they have seen the plaque, which was installed a few years before Judy moved in, in 1974.
That said, Eddington is amongst a more traditional brace of plaqued notables. In its first century, the scheme typically memorialised male titans of science, the military and arts, alongside a smattering of women in philanthropy and the performing arts. The first plaque, for Lord Byron, was erected in 1867 on the poet’s former home on Holles Street, near Cavendish Square (today a John Lewis department store). A blue plaque commemorating the stay of Napoleon on King Street in St James, also mounted in 1867, is the oldest extant plaque. Theatrical actor Sarah Siddons was the first woman to be accorded a plaque, on a since-demolished house in Baker Street, in 1876.
Judy, for her part, is against the scheme’s nationwide expansion. “As a property owner I’d personally like it to be kept quite exclusive,” she says, adding, with a wink. “After all, it benefits your house price, doesn’t it?”
Marc Schneiderman, director of London estate agents Arlington Residential, confirms that blue plaques give a positive boost to one’s house price. “Depending on whom the plaque commemorates, it can make the property more appealing to certain buyers,” he says. (Moneyed mathematicians, perhaps?) And research conducted in 2021 by The University of Leeds found that blue plaques can boost a property’s asking price by up to 25 per cent, though Marc thinks a best estimate would be ‘around ten per cent’ .
Camilla Fellas Arnold, 33 and a writer based in Norfolk, plans to nominate early woman author Julian of Norwich when the scheme opens later this year. Julian lived in the 14th century, as a recluse in a small room attached to the still-standing medieval parish church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich, and wrote the earliest surviving book in the English language penned by a woman.
“It’s an important book beyond its relevance to women in literature,” Camilla says. “It’s about the theological revelations she had when she was ill and was written when the Black Death was raging.” Arnold hopes the new flurry of nationwide nominations will help to balance out the “obvious privilege” seen in many recipients of the original plaques, and the fact these plaques are heavily bestowed on the posher districts of London (there are 321 blue plaques in the borough of Westminster, for example, to seven in Hackney).
Chris Newbold, 50, lives in an apartment block on the site of the famous Manchester nightclub The Haçienda. His home bears a black plaque that was installed in 2011 by a musical heritage group, to commemorate a gig by indie band James at the site in 1982. Chris hopes that the rollout of the scheme will mean weird and wonderful English plaques retain their currency. The Haçienda site, and plaque, attracts thousands of visitors a year on musical history tours, many of them Japanese fans of pop group The Smiths.
“Plaques installed by other organisations [than English Heritage or Historic England] are just as valid, in my view,” Chris says, adding that he believes it ‘ridiculous’ that the original scheme has reserved its garlands for London, until now. “Last time I looked, Manchester was in England,” he laughs. “Plus, for musical heritage, London can’t hold a tiny candle up to us Mancunians, can it?”
Tell that to the ghosts of Handel and Hendrix.