Samuel-Johnson-plaqueThere is only one official blue plaque in the square miles of the City of London – that which marks the property of lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson in Gough Square (he always did like to stand out from the crowd) – and, like many of the plaques in the scheme, it’s not even blue.

Samuel-Johnson-plaque2The plaque was among the 35 erected in the first 35 years of the scheme – this one in 1876 – and was done so by the Society of Arts which then ran the scheme (later the Royal Society of Arts). In common with most of the first 35 plaques, it is brown in colour.

In 1879, just three years after this plaque was erected, the Society of Arts came to an agreement with the Corporation of the City of London that the corporation – the governing body of the square mile – would commemorate sites of historic significance within its boundaries and the agreement has stood ever since.

The hundreds of “blue plaques” since erected by the City of London Corporation are rectangular in nature and commemorate everything from structures like the long-gone historic gate of Aldgate (88 Aldgate High Street) to homes of the notable such as martyred Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas á Becket (86 Cheapside).

There’s a searchable database of all the City of London plaques which can be found here.

And, of course, Dr Johnson’s house, which he lived in from 1748-59 which compiling his famous A Dictionary of the English Language (the first comprehensive English language dictionary), is now a museum – for details of that, see our earlier post here.

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

English Heritage are celebrating 150 years of the blue plaque scheme this year – the oldest of its kind in the world – and so to celebrate we’re looking at 10 of the most notable among them.

Napoleon-III-blue-plaqueFirst up, it’s the oldest surviving blue plaque. Located in King Street in Mayfair, just off St James’s Square, it commemorates the last French Emperor, Napoleon III, who lived at the property while a prince in 1848.

It was only a brief stay for the then soon-to-be emperor. The nephew and heir of Emperor Napoleon I, he , like other members of his family was exiled from France after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and spent the following years in various other countries in Europe as well as, finally, London where he lived firstly at Carlton Gardens and then at the King Street property.

He took the lease on this newly built house in February, 1847, and created what English Heritage has called a “shrine to the Bonapartes” inside, displaying such relics as Napoleon I’s uniforms and a portrait of his famous uncle by the celebrated French artist Paul Delaroche.

The prince was something of a society favourite during his time in London and was invited to join various of St James’s clubs and apparently even enrolled as a special constable during the Chartist riots of 1848.

When the Bourbon monarchy – in the person of King Louis Philippe – was overthrown in France in September that year, the prince abandoned the house to rush back to France (apparently in such a hurry that the story goes that he left his bed unmade and his bath still full of water).

The prince was elected first President of the Second Republic on his return to Paris and in 1852 took his place as Emperor Napoleon III on the restoration of the empire (incidentally, he ended up returning to England in exile following his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and died in Kent in 1873).

The plaque, installed in 1867, also has the distinction of being the only one installed while the person it commemorates was still alive. The rule now is that those commemorated by a blue plaque need to have been dead for at least 20 years before the honour can be bestowed.

The plaque, which is rather more elaborate than modern versions, was put up by the Society of Arts (they’re mentioned on it) and the design features a French imperial eagle. It was manufactured by Minton Hollins & Co.

For more on Blue Plaques, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.