London Blue Plaques

I was researching a walking tour of Belgravia and came across a blue plaque to William Ewart (1798-1869) in Eton Place. When The plaques are all over London and commemorate people who lived or worked on the site. I love the thought that someone well-known walked in the street where I am now.  I wonder what changes have happened to the area since they were here, and what difference they made to our lives today. If William Ewart had not existed, we would not have the London blue plaques because he is the man who came up with the idea. Ironically he did not get his own blue plaque in London until 1952.

William Ewart was a barrister in Middle Temple and became an MP in 1828, The plaque says, he was a social reformer and his early work was connected with executions. He campaigned to stop executed prisoner’s bodies being displayed in public* and to end capital punishment for non-violent crimes. A death sentence for over 200 crimes at this time was at the discretion of the judge.* Mid 1800s he campaigned successfully for towns to be able to raise a small tax on residents to pay for the building and upkeep of local museums and public library. In 1863 he suggested commemorative plaques on buildings to honour noteworthy people who had lived there.

* the reason for this practice was to dissuade people from committing crimes in case  they end up this way “hanging in chains” as it was known was abolished in 1834.

* 1823 the Judgement of Death Act meant murder and treason carried a mandatory death sentence but there were over 200 other crimes that could be punishable by death if the judge ordered it.  

photo CC BY SA 4.0 by Edwardx

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) was a famous Prime Minister of the C19th. It would seem Gladstone’s middle name, Ewart was a nod to William Ewart’s father who was Gladstone’s godfather. There are no blood ties between them but their fathers were both powerful Scottish businessmen living in Liverpool who moved in the same circles there. Gladstone’s blue plaque is at 11 Carlton House Terrace.

The first plaques were put up in 1867 and were sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts, later the London authorities took over sponsorship and experimented with different colours and shapes. Today English Heritage are responsible for putting them up and since WWII they have all been blue. The ceramic plaques are hand-made. Some of the other rules for having one are: -The person must be considered eminent by a majority of members of their profession or to have made an outstanding contribution to human welfare or happiness. -Their name should be recognisable to the well-informed passer-by when the plaque is erected. -This was not always the case but nowadays the plaque must be on the actual building the person knew, not the site where a building was. -A single person cannot have more than one blue plaque in London. Their name can appear on more than one plaque, for example John Lennon is mentioned with George Harrison on a plaque in Baker Street where they had their Apple Boutique and he has a plaque to himself in Montagu Place where he rented a flat with Yoko Ono.

Below are plaques for Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Byron (his blue plaque was the first ever in 1867 but it no longer exists because the building it was on was demolished). She was a brilliant mathematician and a friend of Charles Babbage who invented the Analytical Engine, the distant forerunner of the computer. Babbage gave a lecture in Turin which was transcribed into French by a young Italian engineer. Babbage asked Ada to translate it into English and she did so adding her own notes which were more detailed than the French version.

Mansfield Cumming was the first head of what is officially the Secret Intelligence Service but is known by most people as MI6 and Noor Inayat Khan was working for the British in France during the second world war. I talk about them in two lectures that I offer on zoom, Top Secret London about the history of the secret service in Britain, and Espionage – The French Connection about France during war. For details Contact Me

About the author: Gail Jones