Last updated: December 4, 2013 12:05 am

London’s blue plaques: Marks of a notable past

Wren’s retreat to the country

Given Sir Christopher Wren’s intimate connection with the City of London, it is unexpected to find a blue plaque with his name on a house at Hampton Court, a rural setting during Wren’s lifetime.

Old Court House was given to the architect as part payment for designing St Paul’s Cathedral, though Wren complained that the grand Tudor pile suffered from “great decay” and had it remodelled. As Wren saw his plan for rebuilding London after 1666’s Great Fire rejected, Old Court may well have been a welcome refuge from a city returning to muddle and ugliness.

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A stranger in his home port

Even on land, Captain Cook never strayed far from water. Born in Yorkshire, the explorer settled in the Thames-side hamlet and small port of Shadwell, just east of the City, and married Elizabeth, daughter of a pub landlord from nearby Wapping.

Despite fathering six children, Cook seems to have studiously avoided both Elizabeth and Shadwell, being largely away on the voyages that would end with him being killed and cooked (as a mark of respect) on a beach in Hawai

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A life of experimentation

A mile or so southwest of the Crick Institute lived the man behind another great scientific institution. James Smithson, once of Bentinck Street, Marylebone, led a sensational life for a scientist. The European wanderings of the Duke of Northumberland’s illegitimate son saw him jailed by both sides in the Napoleonic Wars.

His real fame was posthumous: he left his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. The grateful city later dug up his bones in Italy for reburial in the US, which he had never visited in life.

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A far-sighted view of the Tube

Even if London’s transport network were to double in size, its Tube map would probably retain much of Harry Beck’s 1933 original. The east London-born engineering draughtsman broke new ground representing the Underground topologically, altering real distances for the sake of clarity.

Beck’s created the map in his spare time and based it on electrical circuit diagrams. It was not until much later that he got to pencil in his own birthplace. Leyton, the unassuming low-income suburb where he was born in Wesley Road, only got its Tube station in 1947.

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BBC boss’s place in the middle

Complaints about BBC political bias are almost as old as the corporation itself.

Lord Reith, managing director and later first director-general, was living at Barton Street in Westminster during the General Strike of 1926. He was attacked for barring a radio broadcast by the Labour party. Squeezed as ever, Reith had, in fact, been vetoed by the Conservative government and was afraid of having the BBC commandeered by the then chancellor Winston Churchill.

While the storm blew over, it bred a life-long loathing between Reith and Churchill.

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Blue plaque for Florence Nightingale

The pioneer with the lamp

It is unclear whether Florence Nightingale would have flourished in a National Health Service tightening its belt. After being used by the government as a heroic figurehead for British efforts in the Crimean war, she raised the then lavish sum of £45,000 to found a nurses’ training school at St Thomas’ Hospital, with facilities that now seem spartan but were excellent for the time. She went on to revolutionise British nursing, despite being confined to bed in her house in South Street, Mayfair, almost crippled by an undiagnosed case of the bacterial disease brucellosis.

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Seeking sanctuary in suburbia

Blue plaque for Emile Zola

Émile Zola’s London sojourn from 1898 to 1899 was not a happy one. After writing ‘J’accuse’, his front page newspaper article lambasting the French establishment for the Dreyfus Affair, he fled without even a suitcase to escape jail for libelling the French state. Speaking no English, he ended up isolated at a hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood, in suburban South London, separated from wife and mistress, and incognito to all but a few close friends. It is little surprise that Fécondité, the novel he wrote during this time, is not considered one of his best.

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Blue plaque for Thomas Cubitt

Carpenter’s grand ambitions

Master builder Thomas Cubitt not only built the grand house in Lyall Street, Belgravia, where his blue plaque hangs, he built the entire area. From a humble background in Norfolk, Cubitt designed and built a large swath of what still counts as London’s most desirable property. From leafy suburbs at Highbury and Stoke Newington to grand Bloomsbury squares and the stucco concoctions of Belgravia and Pimlico – and even Buckingham Palace – his legacy is all the more impressive when you learn that he began his career as a lowly ship’s carpenter.

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Where ‘The Planets’ was born

Blue plaque for Gustav Holst

One wonders if pupils at St Paul’s Girls School realised how lucky they were to be taught by Gustav Holst. The composer of The Planets worked at the school in Hammersmith, west London, from 1905 until his death in 1934, halting a regime that had taught girls to do little more than tinkle prettily at the keyboard, and introducing his pupils to the mathematical rigour of Bach. While Holst took the post because composing work did not keep his family, the large volume of scores he wrote during the period suggest it cannot have been an entirely onerous one.

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Blue plaque for George Peabody

Banker’s homing instinct

American banker and philanthropist George Peabody may have lived in one of the fine Belgravia town houses built by Thomas Cubitt, but he made his mark on the city with housing for the working classes. Settling permanently in London at 42, Peabody ploughed much of his private fortune into building better homes for the deprived. Founding the trust that still bears his name, he filled what were then the poorer districts with handsome, well-built barrack-like tenements, many of which would sell for a fortune if they were on the market today.

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The battle to end slavery

Comfortable Clapham might seem an unlikely place to foment political upheaval, but in late Georgian England the area teemed with activists and reformists. Chief among these was anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who worshipped at Clapham’s Holy Trinity Church with a group of campaigners later dubbed the “Clapham sect”.

While the sect’s influence in abolishing slavery is indisputable – they founded Freetown, Sierra Leone, to fight the slave trade and spread the gospel – not all their enterprises flourished: the churchyard contains the graves of Sierra Leonean children brought over by the sect to be educated, only to die of measles.

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Building a head of steam

Fittingly for the man who brought the north closer to London, engineer Sir Nigel Gresley spent his working life in an office overlooking King’s Cross station’s platforms.

The designer of Mallard, the fastest steam locomotive ever built, Sir Nigel actually disliked London and for much of his career with the London and North Eastern Railway commuted from the home counties.

His country home near St Albans partly provided his great train’s name – Sir Nigel was obsessed with ducks, constructing islands for them in the moat of his Elizabethan manor house.

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When words failed Bagehot

Banker, economist and writer Walter Bagehot was one of the great minds and wits of Victorian England, but never achieved the political career he sought.

During his years in Upper Belgrave Street in Belgravia, the author of Lombard Street, the classic treatise on the money markets and management of financial crises, stood unsuccessfully for parliament three times, stymied by his lack of talent as a public speaker.

Could it be that the man who wrote “dullness in matters of government is a good sign” took his own dictums too literally?

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A real appetite for reform

When the future Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi arrived in London as a 19-year-old law student in 1888, he struggled with some English customs.

Not yet renamed Mahatma, Gandhi had vowed to abstain from meat, so was at the mercy of his landlady’s insufferably bland vegetarian cooking in Baron’s Court Road, west London. This could explain why, alongside championing non-violent resistance and helping to end British rule in India, Gandhi founded a local chapter of the Vegetarian Society.

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A golden year in Golders Green

Placidly suburban in appearance, Hodford Road in Golders Green was home to Olympic champion Harold Abrahams from 1923 to 1930, a remarkably eventful period of his life.

He shocked commentators by beating the favourites for the gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics’ 100m sprint, a victory that made him Britain’s most famous Jewish athlete and later inspired the film Chariots of Fire.

His sporting career was snuffed out a year after the Paris games, when he broke a leg during long jump practice and was forced to give up competing.

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Bleak House in Bloomsbury

When Charles Dickens moved into Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, in 1837 at the age of 25, he had not fully made the leap from hack to respected writer. But his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was selling brilliantly in serial parts and the future must have looked bright.

Nonetheless, times at his house at number 48 were often bleak. Dickens’ 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary died in his arms there, subsequently providing the model for ailing Dickens heroines such as The Old Curiosity Shop’s Little Nell.

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J.P. Morgan’s London pile

One palatial London townhouse was not enough for American banker John Pierpont Morgan.

Later famous for radical management restructuring, he could not resist knocking down the walls of his father Junius Spencer Morgan’s house.

By 1904, J.P. Morgan’s art collection was too large for the family’s London pile at 14 Prince’s Gate, so he bought the house next door to create a vast mansion. Not bad for an American spending just three months a year in London.

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A Kapital idea in Soho

Given the awful conditions in which Karl Marx spent his years in Soho, it is remarkable he wrote anything at all.

From 1852 to 1855, he lived at 28 Dean Street with his wife, housekeeper and six children (two of whom died) in two attic rooms where, a visiting Prussian spy claimed, “Everything is dirty, everything is covered with dust”.

He nonetheless managed to write The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and start his research for Das Kapital, while allegedly fathering a child by the family maid, Helene.

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Brunel’s shaky foundations

Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, is among London’s best addresses today, but for Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, his childhood there was neither secure nor especially wealthy. When Brunel was still a teenager, his father Marc – also an eminent engineer – was taken from their house at number 98 and imprisoned for debts of £5,000.

Luckily, threats by Brunel senior to work for Alexander I of Russia induced the British government to bail him out, leaving his son free to begin the grand projects, including the Clifton suspension bridge and Great Western Railway, that made his name.

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A scandalous writer in suburbia

Writer Mary Ann Evans – better known by her pen name, George Eliot – left London for the then suburban village of Southfields in winter 1859, trying to escape a city scandalised by her relationship with the married critic George Lewes.

The move to 31 Wimbledon Park Road clearly did Eliot good: she completed The Mill on the Floss here, but the couple had little privacy. Snubbed by disapproving neighbours, Eliot commented that she “should like to transfer our present house … to someone who likes houses full of eyes round him”.

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