The concept of a scheme involving placing commemorative plaques on what was once the homes of notable people was first raised by MP William Ewart in 1863 in Parliament.

Byron-plaqueThree years later, in 1866, the idea was adopted by the then Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) and in 1867 it erected two blue plaques, the first being one commemorating the birthplace of Lord Byron at 24 Holles Street just south of Cavendish Square in Marylebone and the second being that erected to Emperor Napoleon III in King Street (see last week’s post).

But the Byron plaque had the honour of being the first and it remained on the property until it was demolished in 1889 and the plaque, presumably, lost.

It has, however, been replaced several times on subsequent buildings on the site – the latest incarnation, is a “green plaque” erected by Westminster City Council on what is now a John Lewis store and was unveiled on National Poetry Day in 2012 (it replaced a non-standard, rectangular-shaped plaque – pictured above – which was installed after the building was bombed during World War II).

The current plaque describes Lord Byron as “one of the greatest British poets” and quotes him: “Always laugh when you can. It is a cheap medicine.”

Byron is said to have been born at the property on 22nd January, 1788 and was baptised George Gordon Byron at the nearby St Marylebone Parish Church. Interestingly, English Heritage says that recent research has shown there is no clear evidence for which house in Holles Street Lord Byron actually lived in meaning none of the plaques may have actually marked the correct site.

During the first 35 years of the scheme’s existence it erected on some 35 plaques (there are now some 900 in existence, so the pace has quickened since).

Less than half of them now survive but among those that do are plaques to poet John Keats (erected in 1896 on Keats’ House in Hampstead), novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (erected in 1887 on 2 Palace Green in Kensington) and politician and author Edmund Burke (erected in 1876 on 37 Gerrard Street in Soho.

PICTURE:  Wikimedia

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In contrast to some of the grand homes we’ve featured as part of this series (and there are many more that we haven’t, meaning we might have a future series solely dedicated to them!), comes the rather more humble City home of lexicographer and renowned wit Samuel Johnson.

Gough-SquareThe brick townhouse at 17 Gough Square – which lies between Fleet Street and Holborn – was actually built in the late 17th century (before the Hanoverian accession) for wool merchant Richard Gough.

Johnson – who apparently had at least 17 different London residences – didn’t move in here as a tenant until 1748 and stayed for more than a decade until 1759 (seven years after the death of his wife – for more on Johnson, see our earlier ‘Famous Londoners’ post). It was during his tenancy here that he compiled his famous text, A Dictionary of the English Language. The first comprehensive English language dictionary, it was published in 1755.

The four level property, which is now a museum and has been set up as it was in Johnson’s day, was used by the writer as a residence as well as a workplace and the top floor garret is where six copyists worked transcribing the entries for the dictionary.

As well as the rather spectacular staircase, the property features furnishings from the period as well as portraits, prints and other Johnson-related memorabilia. There is a plaque which was placed on the exterior of the property by the Royal Society of Arts in 1876.

After Johnson vacated the premises, the property was used for various purposes including as a small hotel, B&B and a printer’s workshop. It had fallen into disrepair by the early twentieth century but was saved by MP Cecil Harmsworth who restored it and opened it to the public in 1914 (the small curator’s house was built after this). The house was damaged during World War II bombings – when it was used as a canteen by fireman – but survived. It is now operated by a charitable trust.

Outside the house in Gough Square is a statue of Johnson’s cat Hodge (see our earlier post here) and the property is only a short walk from the historic pub Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (see our earlier post here).

WHERE: Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square (nearest Tube station Chancery Lane, Temple, Farringdon and Blackfriars);  WHEN: 11am to 5.30pm (May to September); COST: £4.50 adults/£1.50 children (5-17 years)/£3.50 concession/£10 family; WEBSITE: www.drjohnsonshouse.org