Many of the equalities enjoyed by women in England today — such as access to education, professional careers and representation in government — might not have been secured without the campaigning efforts and individual achievements of women in history.
Pioneering women are commemorated with blue plaques in London, and many of them can be found within a short walk of each other. Use this guide and take a stroll and discover the places where these women lived, worked, and made a difference.
Borough of Chelsea
Crystallographer who contributed to the discovery of DNA
Donovan Court, 107 Drayton Gardens, Chelsea, SW10 9QS
Beginning at Donovan Court — a 1930s apartment block just off the Fulham Road — you’ll find the blue plaque for Rosalind Franklin. The crystallographer’s pioneering study of molecular structures contributed to our modern understanding of DNA.
Rosalind was born into a wealthy family in Notting Hill and read natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. After her education, she carried out ground-breaking research in molecular chemistry. In 1951, using X-ray diffraction, Franklin was able to identify the ‘helix’ form of DNA for the first time.
Franklin lived at Donovan Court until her untimely death from cancer at the age of 37, but her legacy flourished. Her ‘Photo 51’ was acquired by James Watson and Francis Crick, who went on to discover the structure of DNA, for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Franklin’s supervisor at King’s College, Maurice Wilkins, was also awarded the prize. Since then, Franklin’s conspicuous absence from the DNA story has been a point of controversy. The blue plaque was erected in Franklin’s name in 1992, at the suggestion of her family.
Women’s rights campaigner imprisoned for her cause
120 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, SW10 0ES
From Donovan Court, head down Beaufort Street to the river. To the east along Cheyne Walk, facing out over the Thames, is the blue plaque for Sylvia Pankhurst. Along with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, Sylvia led the suffragette movement which campaigned — often militantly — for the equal rights of women in the early 20th century. Pankhurst was imprisoned in 1906, the year she moved to 120 Cheyne Walk. This would be the first of many arrests in a lifelong fight for equality.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Emmeline and Christabel supported the war effort, while Sylvia emerged as a radical socialist and pacifist. Throughout her life, conflicts of conformity and rebellion divided Sylvia from her mother and sister. This culminated in the birth of her child out of wedlock, when Emmeline and Christabel disapproved of her refusal to marry her partner, Silvio Corio. In later life, Pankhurst became a strong opponent of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. She died in the African nation in 1960 at the age of 78, where she received a full state funeral and was heralded ‘an honorary Ethiopian’ by Emperor Haile Selassie.
Wartime nurse in charge on the Western Front
47 Markham Square, Chelsea, SW3 4XA
Go back up Beaufort Street and east along the King’s Road to Markham Square. Here, a blue plaque commemorates Dame Maud McCarthy, the most senior nurse on the Western Front during the First World War. For 30 years McCarthy lived at 47 Markham Square, a five-storey townhouse built in the 1850s close to the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
Australian-born McCarthy began nursing training at London Hospital Whitechapel in October 1891, shortly after moving to England. Hospital records describe her “exceptionally nice disposition”, a theme that carried on throughout her career. In August 1914 McCarthy was appointed Matron-in-Chief for the area from the Channel to the Mediterranean, reporting directly to General Headquarters. She was responsible for 516 people. By 1918, this number had grown to over 6,000.
She received multiple awards for her services including the prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal, and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. One army general reportedly said of McCarthy: “She’s perfectly splendid, she’s wonderful … she’s a soldier!… If she was made Quartermaster-General, she’d work it, she’d run the whole Army, and she’d never get flustered, never make a mistake.”
St James’s and Mayfair
Mother of English fiction
11 Bolton Street, Mayfair, W1J 8BB
The earliest surviving official London plaque to a woman can be found at 11 Bolton Street in Mayfair, to the north-east of Markham Square beyond Wellington Arch and Apsley House. A blue plaque erected here in 1885 commemorates Fanny Burney (known after marriage as Madame D’Arblay), the satirical novelist and playwright whose novels and diaries gained critical respect in London.
Burney’s career success was progressive in the late 18th century, a time when the reading of fiction was frowned upon for young women of social standing, let alone the writing of novels. Her novels Evelina (1778) and Cecelia (1782) propelled her into the limelight, and led to social connections with London’s literary great and good. The author and politician Edmund Burke ‘sat up a whole night to finish’ Evelina, while Jane Austen greatly admired Cecelia, particularly its closing pages in which the phrase ‘PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’ is repeated three times in capitals. Her early success inspired a generation of female fiction writers, and led to her description by Virginia Woolf as ‘the mother of English fiction.’ Today, Burney’s novels continue to be a point of academic interest for their portrayal of the difficulties faced by women in a predominantly male-centric culture.
World’s first computer programmer
12 St James’s Square, St James’s, SW1Y 4RB
Nearby to the east along Piccadilly, a blue plaque on St James’s Square marks the home of Ada, Countess of Lovelace. The first mechanical analytical machine was invented by Charles Babbage in 1837, building the foundation for electronic variations that evolved to become the modern computer. But this journey would have been impossible without the technological vision of Ada.
The mathematician had met Babbage by the time she was 17, and quickly began to collaborate with him and the inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone. While Babbage had created a machine capable of algorithmic logic processing, Ada saw the potential for the technology to go beyond pure calculation, poetically noting that it ‘weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves’. Ada published the first algorithm to be carried out by a computational machine, arguably making her the world’s first computer programmer. Her vision laid the groundwork for the field of computer science. Today, algorithmic programming is behind most digital technology, from mobile phones and webpages, to traffic management and TV broadcasting.
First woman to sit in Parliament
4 St James’s Square, St James’s, SW1Y 6JU
Also on St James’s Square is a blue plaque commemorating Nancy Astor. Born Nancy Longhorne in Virginia, USA, she traveled to England in 1904 before marrying the wealthy newspaper publisher Waldorf Astor. On the death of his father, Waldorf was elected to the peerage in 1919 and was forced to give up his seat in the House of Commons. He nominated wife Nancy as a candidate in the resulting by-election, and she won with 51% of the vote to become the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton and the first female sitting parliamentarian. Astor held the seat for a further 25 years, until 1945.
Astor is remembered for her strong support of women and children in society. She was a keen benefactor of Margaret McMillan’s nursery schools, and in 1923 passed legislation to ban the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 18. Astor became notorious in parliament for heckling and interrupting speeches. Fellow MPs ‘would rather have had a rattlesnake than me’ in the Commons, she later recalled.
Her blue plaque was erected at 12 St James’s Square in 1987. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who unveiled the plaque, praised the parliamentarian for entering ‘that totally male-dominated place’.
Hampstead and Cricklewood
Pioneering inventor and electrical engineer
41 Norfolk Square, Paddington, W2 1RX
Close to Paddington railway station north of Hyde Park, a blue plaque adorns the former home of physicist Hertha Ayrton. The physicist graduated from Girton College in mathematics in 1880, with financial help from friends including George Eliot. In 1899, she gave a talk to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) on the hissing of an electric arc, which she attributed to carbon reacting with oxygen. Ayrton became the first female member of the IEE, and the only woman member until the second was admitted in 1958 — almost 60 years later.
During her later career, Hertha developed the ‘Ayrton Fan’, likely in her home laboratory at 41 Norfolk Square. The device was made of canvas and was used to disperse dangerous gases from the trenches during the First World War. More than 100,000 of them were deployed by the British Army on the Western Front.
First woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain
20 Upper Berkeley Street, Marylebone, W1H 7PF
Head east onto Edgware Road, taking Upper Berkeley Street where you’ll find the blue plaque for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The physician was the sister of author and Suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett, whose own blue plaque can also be found a half-hour walk away in Bloomsbury.
Training in the mid 19th century, Elizabeth Garrett studied medicine privately to avoid the ban on female medical students at universities and hospitals. She was able to use a loophole in the regulations to qualify as a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1865, gaining a place on the medical register. Garrett had become Britain’s first female doctor. Later the same year, she set up her practice at 20 Upper Berkeley Street. She later moved to nearby 69 Seymour Place, which would evolve to become the New Hospital for Women on Euston Road, the first hospital in Britain to be staffed entirely by women. It was later renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women.
Founder of England’s first university college for women
17 Cunningham Place, St John’s Wood, NW8 8JT
Return to Edgware Road and head north until you cross the canal, taking St John’s Wood Road to reach Cunningham Place. Here is the blue plaque to Emily Davies, who founded Girton College, Cambridge, attended by Hertha Ayrton among many others. As a member of the Langham Place group — alongside Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Frances Mary Buss and others — Davies campaigned for women’s access to higher education and professional careers.
After publishing her successful book The Higher Education of Women (1866), Ayrton became secretary of the newly-founded London Schoolmistresses’ Association at 17 Cunningham Place. Then, in 1869, Davies founded Girton College, Cambridge, with fellow Langham Place group member Barbara Leigh Bodichon. The residential college in Hitchin, outside of Cambridge, gave women access to the same levels of courses and exams taken by men, although they were not permitted to receive degrees. The college remains Davies’ crowning achievement in her fight for women’s rights, and continued to lead progressive advancements long after Davies’ death. On 27 April 1948, Girton became a college of Cambridge University, marking the first admittance of women as full, equal members to the university. In 1976, it was the first women’s college at Cambridge to become coeducational.
Download the official blue plaques app for information and guided walks as you explore London.