I used to pop in to French’s Theatre Bookshop in London’s Fitzrovia at least once a week, to pick up scripts or just to browse, in my half-remembered days as a theatre critic and teacher. But never in all that time did I raise my eyes to first-floor level and notice the blue ceramic plaque commemorating the navigator and cartographer Captain Matthew Flinders, the first man to sail around Australia and identify it as a continent.
Flinders led a picaresque life, nearly always on the move, often in debt and sometimes in prison. He did not see his wife Ann for nine years after they were married in 1801. They were finally reunited after he’d spent time in a French prison in Mauritius, and managed to produce a daughter, before Flinders died not far from this spot, which marks his penultimate residence, at the age of 40 on July 19 1814, the day after his atlas and book A Voyage to Terra Australis was published.
You won’t get all that detail from the plaque, which says simply that “Captain Matthew Flinders RN, explorer and navigator, lived here”. The blue plaques placed around London all tell a story but part of the beauty is that they tell it in the tersest and most elliptical manner imaginable. They are more like poems than novels.
These tablets, commemorating eminent people who lived at least part of their lives in London and the particular buildings where they lived, in their modest way reinvent the city. I love the way they are just slightly sunk into the fabric of the façade, while their convex surfaces (good for self-cleaning) stand out just a little proud. This beautifully enacts the way they disrupt the flat surface of eternally present time, reminding us of the past and leading us into the future.
A short walk around a part of Fitzrovia and Portland Place I thought I knew pretty well, with English Heritage’s blue plaque historian Howard Spencer, was a revelation. I had noticed the bronze statue of Francisco de Miranda, the precursor of Venezuelan independence, on the corner of Fitzroy Square but not the blue plaques at the same address in Grafton Way commemorating both him and his fellow Venezuelan Andrés Bello, poet, jurist, creator of the Chilean civil code and father of 15 children by two successive English wives. Here was a reminder of London’s historic friendliness to émigré revolutionaries of various kinds (one of the plaques set up in honour of Karl Marx had to be removed because of vandalism; another remains).
Around the corner in Robert Adam’s Fitzroy Square, a trio of plaques reminds you of the creative work once done in these environs. Here is the plaque to Roger Fry and the Omega Workshops, London’s answer to the Bauhaus, a design enterprise for furniture, textiles and glassmaking intended to break down the barriers between fine and decorative arts, of which Fry was guiding spirit and co-director from 1913-1919.
Among the other directors was the painter and Bloomsbury doyenne Vanessa Bell, whose sister Virginia Woolf is commemorated in another plaque in the same square. In the same house, at a different time, lived the playwright George Bernard Shaw. His future wife Charlotte was dismayed to find that Shaw lived in “a very small room which was in a perpetual state of dirt and disorder”, surrounded by “heaps of letters, pages of manuscripts … butter, sugar, apples … and sometimes a cup of cocoa or a half-finished plate of porridge.” How very strange.
Our short tour ends a few minutes’ walk away in Hallam Street off Portland Place near the BBC’s Broadcasting House. The American broadcaster Ed Murrow lived in a mansion block here from 1938-1946, one of only three residents (according to Post Office directories, an invaluable source for verifying residence) to remain there at the height of the Blitz. Murrow often gave broadcasts from rooftops, including that of Broadcasting House, working for both the BBC and his regular employer CBS, and, according to his biographer, would arrive “often out of breath, occasionally dusty, and very occasionally on all fours”.
The blue plaque scheme is a brilliant British idea that has been widely copied. Suggested by the reforming MP William Ewart in 1863, it was established three years later under the auspices of the Royal Society of Arts. The scheme was then run successively by the London county council, the Greater London Council and (since 1986) by English Heritage, all with slightly different ideas and designs. The plaques started off blue, then went brown for a bit, before (sensibly) returning to blue.
All the suggestions for people to be commemorated come from the public – a fine example of crowdsourcing – before being vetted and approved. Having been closed for a while because of funding cuts, the scheme is now open again to nominations. These little roundels are inspirational in recalling men and women who changed the world. Why not visit www.english-heritage.org.uk to suggest a name?