London is speckled with 850 blue plaques marking the houses where important men and women once lived – people whose influence sometimes has a profound effect on today’s residents. Such as the couple who developed a friendship with Sylvia Plath’s daughter because they live in the house where she was born. And a woman who sleeps in Fred Perry’s old bedroom thinking: “I wonder if he lay awake at night looking at the same ceiling.”
A window, rather than a ceiling, reminds novelist Louisa Young of JM Barrie. She grew up in the house where he wrote Peter Pan and where her mother, Elizabeth Lady Kennet, still lives.
... while she was dreaming the
window of the nursery blew
open and a boy did drop on the
floor. He was accompanied by a
strange light, no bigger than
your fist, which darted about
the room like a living thing ...
– ‘The Adventures of Peter Pan’, JM Barrie
I am standing by that window on Bayswater Road with Louisa, who says Barrie’s success was an inspiration. “I think it helped me being a writer. When you grow up under the wing of it, you take it on board, whether it comes out directly or not.” She even set one of her own books, My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, in which Barrie appears, in the house next to 100 Bayswater.
Shortly after Louisa’s mother married her father, Wayland Kennet, the late Labour politician and peer, the couple moved into a converted coach house in the garden of 100 Bayswater. They later swapped places with Wayland’s father and moved into the main house – where Wayland had grown up. “Operation Lear, we called it – the youngsters coming in to take over,” says Elizabeth.
An address in a more Bohemian area of London inspired the following lines of poetry:
London. The grimy lilac softness
Of an April evening. Me
Walking over Chalk
On my way to the tube station.
A new father – slightly light-headed
With the lack of sleep and the novelty.
– ‘Epiphany’, Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes wrote these lines in 1960, hunched over his typewriter in the tiny hallway of their second-floor flat at 3 Chalcot Square in Primrose Hill. It was the year he and Sylvia Plath had their first child. “They were happy here when Frieda was born. So this was one of the best periods of their lives,” says Vivette Glover, a professor of perinatal psychobiology at Imperial College London who now shares the house with her philosopher husband Jonathan. “It doesn’t have those associations,” she says, referring to Plath’s suicide, which occurred after she moved to a house around the corner in Fitzroy Road.
The plaque at Chalcot Square is dedicated to Plath alone because a person must have been deceased for at least 20 years if they are to be honoured (Hughes died in 1998). “I don’t just think of Sylvia Plath actually, I think of Plath and Hughes,” says Vivette. “I love his poetry and I find her rather too dark for my taste, though she’s obviously tremendously admired.”
Plath’s fans regularly descend on the house. “Several times a week there are people staring at it, photographing it. She still has a tremendous hold, especially over American teenage girls. They seem to love her.”
Vivette and her husband developed a friendship with Plath’s daughter after meeting her at the unveiling of the plaque. “Frieda had never been back to this place at all,” she says. “She couldn’t face it.” But they showed her the house around the corner where Plath moved after she and Hughes split up – and where she committed suicide.
“It was quite moving,” says Vivette, “because the whole world is interested in that story and she hadn’t been able to face it.”
The unveiling wasn’t an entirely sombre affair. Vivette and Frieda had to suppress their laughter during a speech from someone who talked about how Plath had “spread happiness”. “Frieda caught my eye and it was hard not to giggle. He obviously hadn’t a clue what Plath was like.”
Like Vivette, Iver Benattar, who lives with his wife Ronnie in Fred Perry’s old house in Ealing, has also become used to strange people standing outside his house – he has even had relatives of the late tennis player knocking on the door. “They stop and stare at it for five minutes, and I wonder: how long can you read that thing?”
Iver doesn’t see it as a nuisance though, more a mark of his achievement. Once a keen amateur tennis player, he spent 16 years campaigning for Perry to get a plaque. “He’d won Wimbledon three times while living here,” he says. “He was not to be ignored.”
A kind of musical patina seems to have seeped into the fabric of a house in Hampstead. Antonia Leach, an opera enthusiast who is a trustee of the Hampstead Garden Opera, nominated one of her heroes for a blue plaque after learning that Richard D’Oyly Carte, the opera impresario, had lived in her house.
“I was very, very excited when I realised that there was a genuine link. I really did believe that he was a deserving cause.” A true evangelist for D’Oyly Carte, she reels off his many achievements, which include the pairing of Gilbert and Sullivan and the opening of the Savoy hotel.
Like many of the blue plaque homeowners I meet, her link to D’Oyly Carte goes beyond the historical facts; finding out that they shared an address prompted her to recall her own early experiences of opera.
“I felt so connected. During the time that I was waiting to hear back from English Heritage, my parents came across an old programme of Trial by Jury [the Gilbert and Sullivan opera] with me in it as a teenager. I remember feeling actually rather shy and embarrassed.”
Professional affinity also links Nadine Shenton, who lives in Hampstead in a house once owned by actor Richard Burton. Both began their careers at the Royal Shakespeare Company, although she went on to be a voiceover artist rather than a Hollywood superstar. Is she jealous?
“It’s lovely that another thesp has lived here. But I don’t think anything has changed when it comes to actors who are truly talented. There always seems to be a shortcoming in their lives which means they spiral out of control,” she says, citing Burton’s drink problem and his tortured relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. “It takes a very strong person to deal with fame. I don’t think I’d be great at handling success.”
English Heritage, the organisation that awards blue plaques, says the 140-year-old scheme will survive despite recent fears for its future, although it will have to cope with less government funding. It has been temporarily closed to new nominations.
These intriguing connections with some of the UK capital’s most influential people will become harder to trace if there are fewer blue plaques in the future – but it won’t make much difference to London’s soaring property values. Richard Gutteridge, an estate agent at Savills who marketed a flat in Oscar Wilde’s blue-plaqued house in Chelsea for £1.1m, says owners of such homes should not expect a premium for history.
“The value of a property has much more to do with the quality of the interiors. Some of these plaques are for people who died some time ago, and many foreign buyers have never heard of them.”
Elizabeth Young, who has kept the Edwardian interior at Bayswater road much as JM Barrie would have had it, scoffs at such talk and is keen to stop her house being sold to someone who would install a “spam-coloured marble” bathroom.
“Mum is obviously not going to live forever so we’ve got to work out a practical solution,” says her son Thoby.
“The idea that I’ve been working on is that we find somebody to simply buy the house, secure its future, and then allow us to run it and administer it, but in a much more open way, basically throw it open to the public.” He says £10m should cover it.
English Heritage isn’t the only one short of funds.
David Crow is a companies news editor