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Explained: What is the London blue plaque and who gets feted by one?

World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan is now the first woman of Indian origin to be commemorated by the distinct London blue plaque.

World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan, blue london plaque, london plaque noor inayat khan, who was noor inayat khan, what is blue london plaque, indian express explainedNoor Inayat Khan will be commemorated by the distinct blue London plaque, an emblem of English heritage pride. (Source: EnglishHeritage)

World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan is now the first woman of Indian origin to be commemorated by the distinct blue London plaque. An emblem of English heritage pride, the plaque has been placed on the house at Taviton street, Bloomsbury, London, where Khan once lived.

The idea of placing commemorative plaques on historically significant buildings was first mooted in 1863. The idea was to honour important people and organisations who have lived or worked in London buildings. Currently, the blue plaque scheme is being run by the charity organisation, English Heritage, that takes care of historic sites and buildings in England.

World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan, blue london plaque, london plaque noor inayat khan, who was noor inayat khan, what is blue london plaque, indian express explained Shrabani Basu, who authored Khan’s biography, ‘Spy princess: The life of Noor Inayat Khan’, has been mooting for a plaque for Khan since 2016. (Via Soefi Museum via The New York Times)

Over a span of more than 150 years, the blue plaque has been placed on more than 900 buildings in London, and enjoys an enduring popularity among heritage lovers of the country. Journalist and historian, Shrabani Basu, who authored Khan’s biography, Spy princess: The life of Noor Inayat Khan, has been mooting for a plaque for Khan since 2016. A brief look into its history reveals how the idea of who is historically important and deserving of the blue plaque has evolved over time.

The blue plaque scheme: A history

In 1863, William Ewart, a British statesman and Liberal politician put forward the idea of commemorative plaques in the House of Commons. He wrote “the places which had been the residences of the ornaments of their history could not but be precious to all thinking Englishmen”.

When Ewart proposed the idea, he expected the government to fund the scheme. However, when the administration refused to do so, it was taken over by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA).

The RSA was of the opinion that the proposed scheme would be a good way of identifying and protecting the city’s historic buildings by increasing the “public estimation for places which have been the abodes of men who have made England what it is”.

Thereby, in 1867 the first blue plaque commemorated the poet Lord Byron at his birthplace, 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square. However, this house was demolished in 1889. Consequently, the oldest blue plaque in London is the one on Napoleon III’s house on King’s Street in Westminster.

The RSA managed the blue paque for 35 years and through the period commemorated 35 people including poet John Keats, novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. Many of these houses have disappeared on account of development or wartime bombs.

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At the turn of the 20th century, the scheme was taken over by the London County Council (LCC). Under them the criteria of selecting historically significant persons underwent a change. While the RSA sought to honour those connected with historical events, the LCC was more interested in celebrating famous Londoners and visitors to London.

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Under the LCC, the selection process was also much faster and the committee would install an average of eight plaques every year till 1914. By 1965 when the LCC was abolished, it had created nearly 250 plaques, even though the scheme had been suspended during the two world wars

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In 1965, the LCC turned into the Greater London Council (GLC) and they took over the scheme. Under the GLC, the geographical and cultural range of the plaques expanded. Consequently, plaques were being erected in outlying London boroughs as well. The choice of people being commemorated also turned more populist, and the GLC put up the plaques for musicians, activists, medical professionals and the like. Moreover, buildings linked to historical events also came to be honoured. For instance, in 1977 a blue plaque was erected at the former hayloft in Paddington where the Cato Street Conspiracy had taken place in 1820 to murder all British cabinet ministers and prime minister Lord Liverpool.

The English Heritage took over the scheme in 1986. In the last 34 years, it has honoured a diverse range of personalities including guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix, actor Kenneth Williams, writer H G Wells and Dame Maud McCarthy, a senior nurse in World War I.

In 2016, the English Heritage launched a ‘plaques for women’ campaign. “Currently just 14 per cent of blue plaques celebrate women and the Charity doesn’t think it’s good enough,” it wrote on its official website asking for more nominations for women from the public. Since then, the charity has seen a dramatic rise in the number of blue plaques being erected in the name of historically significant women.

Interestingly, apart from the organisation managing the scheme and the philosophy behind the selection process, the design and make of the plaque itself underwent significant changes over the last 150 years. The earliest plaques were handmade by the pottery firm Minton, Hollins & Co. While initially they were blue in colour, later the RCE commissioned chocolate brown colored ones since blue was more expensive to produce.

Under the LCC, the plaque was given a laurel wreath border and from 1921, the blue ceramic plaques were decided for standard use, since they stood out best in the London cityscape. The modern design, which got rid of the laurel wreath and simplified the overall look was born in 1938 and was designed by a student of Central School of Arts and Crafts who was paid four guineas for it.

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While Khan is the first woman of Indian origin to be honoured with a blue plague, it has been erected on houses and venues associated with several Indian men including Mahatma Gandhi, Raja Ram Mohon Roy, and B R Ambedkar.

First published on: 29-08-2020 at 06:46:59 pm
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