With the general election imminent, Howard Spencer looks at some of the past political personalities of note who have been celebrated with a blue plaque in London
Most of the leading parliamentary figures of the last two centuries have their names inscribed on a building somewhere in the capital – some even have more than one official plaque (these days the rule is strictly one per person).
Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister twice in the latter half of the nineteenth century, has his life book-ended by one plaque on his supposed birthplace – 22 Theobalds Road, Holborn – and one on the house that he died in – 11 Curzon Street Mayfair.
Disraeli’s great rival William Ewart Gladstone – who was Premier for no less than four separate spells – has three plaques, at 11 Carlton House Terrace, 73 Harley Street and 10 St James’s Square – the last, a bigger than usual roundel, also commemorates two earlier Prime Ministers who had earlier lived in the same house, William Pitt the elder and the Earl of Derby. Number 10 Downing Street aside, there can be few more intensely ‘political’ addresses than this one.
Joseph Chamberlain never became prime minster, but can claim the distinction of having split both the major parties of his day – first the Liberals in 1886 and then the Conservatives in 1903. He originally had three plaques, of which two survive at 188 Camberwell Grove and at 25 Highbury Place. The former is a stone tablet, the latter a bronze one – not all ‘blue plaques’ are ceramic, round, or even blue.
Chamberlain’s son Neville did get to Number 10, of course, but his notorious policy of appeasing Hitler pretty much overshadowed everything else he ever did. His blue plaque (just the one) at 37 Eaton Square was approved by the London County Council in 1962 at the same time as Ramsay MacDonald's, the first Labour prime minister (9 Howitt Road, Belsize Park).
Going back a bit further, William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox have plaques too; respectively, at 120 Baker Street and 46 Clarges Street, Mayfair. Their contemporary Henry Addington, however, who was prime minister in 1801-1804, was turned down for one in 2002. The reasons for this may be guessed at from a contemporary rhyme: ‘Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington’ (Paddington was then a small village).
Getting the top job is by no means a sure fire way of achieving blue plaque immortality: present aspirants please note. There are, however, a good number of plaques to politicians who may not even have achieved cabinet rank, but whose achievements sit well with what is perhaps the most important of the blue plaque selection criteria – that the recipients should have made ‘a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness’.
A good example is Eleanor Rathbone, who was behind the introduction of the Family Allowance in 1945, the predecessor of today’s child benefit. Her plaque is at 5 Tufton Court, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, where she represented the Combined Universities as an Independent.
Another who is remembered for a particular legislative achievement is Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, who drafted the bill to enshrine the first bank holidays in 1871. In his lifetime these days of rest were sometimes referred to as ‘St Lubbock’s Days’ – and while that tradition has died out, his blue plaque at 29 Eaton Place, Belgravia, still catches the eyes of passers-by.
Leslie Hore-Belisha, who gave his name to Belisha beacons and whose key contribution was better road safety while serving as Minister of Transport, has a plaque at 16 Stafford Place Westminster. And Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, who was instrumental in setting up the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, has as plaque at 16 South Eaton Place. At the same address there is also a plaque to Cecil’s former secretary Philip Noel-Baker, who also made it to the Cabinet table, and was awarded a Nobel prize for his efforts to promote international peace.
So, a note to the present generation of politicians: if you want a blue plaque, do something of general and long-lasting benefit. It really is that simple!
Learn more about the Blue Plaque scheme here