John Sturgis

The joy of blue plaques

The joy of blue plaques
Image: Getty
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This week saw the unveiling of the latest English Heritage blue plaque.

It marks one Caroline Norton, a 19th century writer celebrated for her pioneering legal battles against her drunk and violent wastrel of a husband which resulted in some of the first legislation to enshrine women’s rights.

The plaque is at Chesterfield Street, Mayfair, where, in 1877, the always-unlucky-in-love Norton died just three months after marrying again.

It’s a riveting story that deserves to be told yet, relatively, Mayfair doesn’t really need any more plaques - like Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Hampstead and the like, it’s already dotted with them. You can go on blue plaque walks there.  But Southgate, where I live, has none.

Whitehouse Way is a small, fairly unremarkable street in the north London suburbs, close to the outer reaches of the Piccadilly Line. The houses are slightly poky, cheaply-built circa-1930 semis with some deco touches. There’s nothing outwardly noteworthy about it, no plaques, no markers of any kind to suggest anything ever happened here worth recording. And yet I’ve lately learned that there have been one or two residents or episodes of interest.

Number 45, for example, was Amy Winehouse’s childhood home. Older residents still remember her playing in the street and, yes, singing in their back garden. They also recall her hanging around the house at number 87 one summer in the mid-nineties.

That was because number 87 was, briefly, a film set, the main location in Mike Leigh's Palme D’Or-winning Secrets and Lies. If you remember the film, it was the house where the Timothy Spall photographer character hosted his excruciating climactic family reunion. A 1940 bomb had blown up the previous house at 87.

Then there’s number 26 where, a few years earlier, the footballer Dave Mackay lived. Younger readers may find this difficult to believe but Tottenham once won the league - and the FA Cup too - and one of that team’s very best players lived here, in a standard three-bed semi, rather than the mansion with garages of even reserve players today.

Coincidentally, Spall also appeared in the football film The Damned United as Brian Clough’s sidekick Peter Taylor in which they visit Mackay’s home to sign him from Spurs for Derby: so Spall didn’t just appear in a film made in my road, it seems he also appeared in another one set in it.

But none of this is marked. Some of it you can’t even find on Google. Even the internet-age WInehouse family history isn’t recorded there. It’s taken a mixture of amateur oral historical research and old electoral rolls and the like to find all this out - and who knows what more there is that we’ve missed?

And that’s just in one small street, unacknowledged. It seems a real missed opportunity. I see children trotting to school in Spurs hats past the home of one of the club’s greatest players without even knowing it’s there. We need to lower the bar for who qualifies for plaques - or widen the field of who issues them.

The English Heritage scheme is the blue riband of plaques but they are extremely discerning and sparing in whom they recognise. Only 11 were put up in the whole of 2020. Of my local candidates only Winehouse would likely qualify and she wouldn’t be eligible for another ten years, needing to be dead 20 first. Even then our street might be pipped by Camden where she infamously lived large during her all-too-brief productive period. 

There are some existing alternatives to English Heritage, ad hoc local and industry schemes, which mark people the former probably wouldn’t but they’re inconsistent and piecemeal - and, for me, there aren’t nearly enough. Let’s have a scheme to mark the homes of Welsh poets, one for eminent rock climbers, for notable civil servants even - anything, everything. If Henry VIII reputedly spent the night here in 1527 then tell us.

Plaques can be superbly esoteric - I love ‘The Last Rajah of Sarawak’ that I came across in Bayswater recently. They can even, considering the canvas they offer is barely the size of a dinner plate, occasionally be playful. At Finchley Crematorium, where admittedly the plaques are memorial rather than former-home markers - but otherwise much the same thing - we came across Marc Bolan with a white swan and Vivian Stanshall with surrealist pair of ears and ‘ceci n'est pas Vivian’ gag.

Image: Getty. Khan, of Indian and US descent, served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as an undercover radio operator in 1943 and was the first female radio operator to be flown into Nazi-occupied France. Khan was eventually captured by the Gastapo after being betrayed and was killed in 1944 in a concentration camp

Lately statues have become a battlefield in the culture wars. Colston has come down, Greta Thunberg gone up, Churchill has been menaced. Flags too have become increasingly fraught: what flies from your public building, the union flag or an LGBT rainbow? It’s all quite tiresome. Plaques are more neutral, less controversial. There’s a plaque to Ho Chi Minh on the Haymarket, for example - sublimely placed next to an Americanised sports bar - but no one gets cross about it. That's because it doesn’t signal a shrine to revolutionary communism in the heart of Westminster. It’s just marking the connection.

For unlike flags and statues, plaques don’t overtly celebrate or endorse, they simply acknowledge; they are really just historical footnotes on walls. No one gets cross, they just get informed. So put out more plaques.

Written byJohn Sturgis

John Sturgis is a veteran Fleet Street news journalist

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