Want a Blue Plaque? Here's how to guarantee you'll get one

Could you be the next Dame Margot Fonteyn? Image: Getty.

How are you planning to make it to posterity? A statue? A shrine? Pass on your genes to your stupid kids?

Nah, if you never want to be forgotten, what you really want is a blue plaque, mate. So here’s how to increase your chances of getting one:

Be dead

Sorry, you’ll never actually get to see your own blue plaque. The rules of the English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme state you must have been dead for 20 years, unless it’s been a century since you’ve been born. Occasional exceptions have been made for very notable people: Gandhi had only been gone for 6 years when he got his.

This wasn’t always the case: the oldest surviving (but not the first) Blue Plaque was dedicated to the then very much alive Napoleon III. Bloody typical: one rule for emperors…

Still, at least Napoleon III’s plaque is actually blue: there was a bit of experimenting before a standard size, material and shape was settled on. The oldest ones were mostly brown. Who wants a brown plaque?

Be a politician, a writer, a poet or a painter

Of the 357 different professions that English Heritage list in their catalogue of plaque-holders, these are far and away the most popular – so if you’re playing the odds write an illustrated poem about your time as an MP. The professions of clowning, plastic surgery and sexology, meanwhile, have only merited one plaque-worthy individual each.

Do whatever’s going to make you noteworthy in London

English Heritage only issues blue plaques within the capital, so do at least some of your notable activities at a London address.

A national scheme was trialled between 2000 and 2005, erecting plaques in Birmingham, Merseyside, Southampton and Portsmouth, but it was decided that non-English Heritage plaque schemes were doing enough commemorating already. Yeah, because a blue plaque that’s not from the original, “official” scheme is definitely just as good. And your mum thinks you’re special.

Do it somewhere that isn’t going to be knocked down

When the scheme started in 1867, the first plaque was placed on Lord Byron’s former home near Cavendish Square. Sucks to be Byron: the house was knocked down in 1889, and the rules say the plaques can only “survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised”, which presumably precludes the John Lewis that sits on the site from getting one.

Or be too controversial

Karl Marx has a plaque at 28 Dean Street – but it was not his first. In the 1930s, a plaque was put up on an address he’d lived in in Kentish Town: it was almost immediately vandalised. A replacement was issued: it was almost immediately vandalised. The then-current owner of the house (long since demolished) decided against trying again.

A pretty sure-fire method: invent the blue plaque

Hampton library bears a plaque dedicated to one William Ewart, a 19th century member of parliament who made the unfortunate decision to share most of his name with the much more famous William Ewart Gladstone, Britain’s most self-flagellating Prime Minister.

This is a shame, as Ewart was quite a good politician: he was instrumental in creating public libraries, legalising the metric system and getting rid of capital punishment for stealing cows. And in 1863, he stood up in parliament and raised the question of whether memorials might be placed on “Residences Of Deceased Celebrities”, as Hansard charmingly puts it. William Cowper, the man in charge of such things, broadly agreed, but wondered if people might get confused and think that the dead celebrities still lived there.

In the event, nothing governmental was forthcoming, but the matter was taken up by a committee of the Royal Society of Arts. And finally, four years after Ewart’s suggestion, it started putting up plaques. Eventually the London County Council took it over: it then passed to the Greater London Council, until Thatcher killed that and the scheme was passed to English Heritage.

Ewart didn’t get his own plaque until 1992, and has to share it with the 18th century tenor, John Beard. The absolute loser.


So obviously don’t live anywhere any other person of historical interest has ever lived

And risk only getting half a plaque? There are a few buildings in London that have two separate plaques, but even then, do you really want to share the limelight of architectural eternity?

Failing any of that: just give up and make your own bloody plaque

While the English Heritage scheme is the original and best, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you putting up one of your own (well, on property you own, as long as it isn’t listed).

In fact, part of the point of the scheme was to encourage others to start doing it: the lazy laissez-faire Victorians at the Royal Society of Arts didn’t want to be lumbered with the task forever.

There are around 900 “official” plaques – but the crowdsourced plaque directory openplaques.org lists over 11,000 in the UK alone. Many local councils and arts organisations run schemes these days: EH’s blue plaque committee will even sometimes specifically recommended that people who didn’t merit one of their plaques try for a “lesser” plaque.

Of course, if you’ve done nothing to actually merit the plaque, future property owners might take a chisel to it. So best get cracking on whatever bit of politics, poetry or sexology that’s going to see you preserved forever in white on blue.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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Quiz: Can you name the UK city from a map of its public transport?

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Come on, this is an easy one.

 

 

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