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Blue plaques explained: why some people don’t get one

Posted:
10 February 2017
Posted By:
Professor Ronald Hutton
Categories:
Behind the Scenes
Professor Ronald Hutton, chair of the blue plaques panel

The London Blue Plaques scheme is probably the oldest such scheme in the world. It links significant figures of the past to the buildings in the capital in which they lived and worked. The scheme belongs to the people, in that anyone is free to propose somebody for commemoration but the worthiness of the subject is determined by the blue plaques panel of experts that I chair, against very high standards.

I am often asked why a particular person has not received a plaque. Sometimes the answer is simple – there is no doubt that William Shakespeare deserves a plaque but the fact remains that none of the buildings in London associated with the great playwright survive today. Others have simply not been deceased for long enough – we operate a 20 year rule, in order to try and ensure that a figure’s reputation is sufficiently settled before they are considered. And in certain – happily rare – cases, the owner of the building in question declines to allow the plaque to be installed and we need to wait for a change of heart or a change of owner or failing that, find an alternative address.

Difficult decisions

But there are individuals for whom the answer as to why they do not have a blue plaque is not so easy. It can be down to the fact that the panel receives up to eighty nominations each year and since English Heritage can only install around twelve annually, it follows that the shortlisting process is highly competitive. This can occasionally mean some agonisingly borderline cases where the panel has had to make a very difficult decision not to award a plaque.

Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, is one such example. Burgess was a prolific writer and an outspoken cultural commentator but on balance, the blue plaques panel felt his overall significance was not yet clear enough to justify a plaque, although we will revisit that decision in five years’ time.

Poet W.E. Henley was responsible for the memorable line, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul” and yet in 2003, the panel felt that – bearing in mind most of his other writings have not continued to resonate in quite the same way – this line alone was not enough to commend Henley for one of our blue roundels.

Laurence Binyon is another more recent example of this. The poet and scholar’s name may not be familiar to most people today but these following four lines of verse have entered the nation’s consciousness:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They are from his Ode of Remembrance, For the Fallen, written in the first year of the First World War. Today they are recited at Remembrance Sunday services in churches and cemeteries across the United Kingdom and beyond.

Last year at one of our panel meetings, we discussed Binyon at length. We fully acknowledged the fame of those four lines and their cultural and historical significance. But we also considered his poetry as a whole and noted that there is already a plaque in Cornwall marking the place where he is said to have composed For the Fallen.

Plaque to Laurence Binyon: Paul Harvey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMemorial_plaque_to_Laurence_Binyon_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1014021.jpg Portrait of Binyon:William Strang [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALaurence_Binyon_by_William_Strang.jpg

Left: Plaque to Laurence Binyon – Paul Harvey [CC BY-SA 2.0] | Right: Portrait of Binyon by William Strang [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The panel ultimately decided that as Binyon’s poetry overall has neither the power nor the fame of those four lines we just could not award him a London blue plaque, and place him in the same company as Keats and Tennyson, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath.

Binyon and For the Fallen are inextricably linked to the First World War, the cataclysmic event of the 20th century. And the London Blue Plaques Scheme recognises many of the significant people associated with that war – poets such as Sassoon and Kipling but also figures like Maud McCarthy, the most senior nurse on the Western Front, and Fabian Ware, who, as the founder of the War Graves Commission, ensured fallen First World War soldiers were honoured with a dignified final resting place.

Inevitably with cases like Binyon and Burgess, not everyone will agree with our decision and occasionally among the panel members (and I write from experience) there can be a nagging sense of doubt as to whether we got it right. But what I am certain of is that for those people who do receive the accolade of a blue plaque – and this year will see plaques unveiled to among others, film star Charlie Chaplin and dancer Rudolf Nureyev – it is because they made an exceptional contribution to their chosen field.

Dame Maud McCarrthy and Siegfried Sassoon are two people who are commemorated with a blue plaque, partly due to their activities in the First World War.

Dame Maud McCarrthy and Siegfried Sassoon are two people who are commemorated with a blue plaque, partly due to their activities in the First World War.

Get involved in London’s blue plaque scheme

Since the scheme was founded over 150 years ago, suggestions for new blue plaques have mainly come from the public. We’re interested any viable proposals, but before you send us a detailed nomination, there are a few criteria to consider. Find out more about the scheme and how to get involved below:

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  • About the Author

    Professor Ronald Hutton
    Chair of the English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel

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