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The plaque for Chaplin's home, 15 Glenshaw Mansions in Brixton
The plaque for Chaplin's home, 15 Glenshaw Mansions in Brixton | © English Heritage
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A Blue Plaque Guide to London's Greatest 20th-Century Residents

Picture of Charlotte Luxford
Home & Design Editor
Updated: 30 April 2018
From humble lodgings to London’s grandest houses, there are more than 900 blue plaques across the capital that tell the story of the city’s most famous residents. We’ve selected a few star-studded homes that have recently been awarded plaques, highlighting both famous and lesser-known figures who had a profound impact on the capital – and the world – during the 20th century.

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene

Claim to fame: Shaking up the BBC

What’s the story?

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene was the real frontman of the BBC during the Swinging Sixties, overseeing its radical transformation from a stuffy corporation to a more liberal and creative enterprise, with the introduction of colour television, BBC2 and Radio 1. TV Legend Sir David Attenborough, who unveiled his plaque at Sir Hugh’s Holland Park home in April 2018, said his boss had the ‘highest humanitarian moral standards’, but not everyone agreed – he was known to mischievously taunt clean-up TV campaigner Mrs Whitehouse, who called Sir Hugh the person ‘most responsible for the moral collapse that characterised the 60s and the 70s’. She once requested the removal of the term ‘knickers’ from a transmission, which he deemed ‘silly’.

Address: 25 Addison Avenue, Holland Park, W11 4QS

Nearest tube stop: Holland Park

Sir David Attenborough unveiling Hugh Carleton Greene’s blue plaque | © English Heritage

Sister Nivedita (1867–1911)

Claim to fame: Campaigning for Indian independence

What’s the story?

Otherwise known as Margaret Elizabeth Noble, the Scot-Irish social worker became ‘Sister Nivedita’ as one of Swami Vivekananda’s closest disciples, bringing the Hindu philosophical movement Vedanta to London. She became established in the UK for her progressive educational methods, which she then took to India, opening a girls’ school in Calcutta and lecturing on Hindu culture. Vivekananda wrote to her: ‘I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man but a woman; a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially.’ She became one of the most influential females in Indian history, working tirelessly for educational reform and campaigning for Indian independence.

Address: 21A High Street, Wimbledon, SW19 5DX

Nearest tube stop: Wimbledon

Sarada Devi (left) and Sister Nivedita | © Wikicommons

Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977)

Claim to fame: Slapstick comic genius

What’s the story?

Undoubtedly one of the most important figures of the film industry, Sir Charles Spencer, aka ‘Charlie Chaplin’, had a humble upbringing despite his worldwide fame. It was actually his somewhat Dickensian childhood, defined by poverty, the workhouse and eventually becoming orphaned with his brother, that influenced his much-loved screen persona ‘The Little Tramp’. Off the back of this first taste of success, he and his brother Sydney moved into the top-floor flat of Glenshaw Mansions in Brixton, which became their ‘cherished haven’. Chaplin fondly recalled the interior as ‘a combination of a Moorish cigarette shop and a French whorehouse, but we loved it.’

Chaplin had a lengthy 75-year career, and by 1918 was one of the most famous celebrities in the world. However, the 1940s saw a decline in his popularity after some scandalous marriages with young women, paternity suits and accusations of communist sympathies. In 1972 there was a renewed appreciation for Chaplin’s work and he received an Honorary Academy Award for ‘the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.’

Address: 15 Glenshaw Mansions, Brixton Road, SW9 0DS

Nearest tube stop: Brixton

The Gold Rush
British comic actor and director Charlie Chaplin as ‘The ‘Little Tramp’ in ‘The Gold Rush’ | © Hulton Archive/Getty Images/English Heritage

Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

Claim to fame: Grotesque-style figurative paintings

What’s the story?

This building on Reece Mews was Francis Bacon’s studio space and home for more than 30 years, which is where he created some of his later masterpieces, including his first famous large-scale triptych, Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962). Bacon was an early riser, often manically painting before heading out for the rest of the day to drink and gamble his way around town. Bacon was not much liked among society, with even some of his friends describing him as a ‘bilious ogre,’ ‘one of the world’s leading alcoholics,’ and a ‘drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho’, according to art critic Jerry Saltz in 2009. Despite this, he was undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s artistic geniuses.

Address: 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington, SW7 3HE

Nearest tube stop: South Kensington

©English Heritage
Francis Bacon’s home on Reece Mews | © English Heritage
Francis Bacon’s 7 Reece Mews studio, c. 1980s. Photograph by Perry Ogden. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS/Artimage 2017. *Please delete after use*
Francis Bacon’s home primarily acted as his studio | Photograph by Perry Ogden © The Estate of Francis Bacon/English Heritage

Rudolf Nureyev (1938–1993)

Claim to fame: One of the world’s greatest ballet dancers

What’s the story?

Born on the Trans–Siberian express before the Second World War, Nureyev’s childhood was a hard one, consisting of evacuation, poverty and hunger. It was only when he saw the ballet Song of the Cranes, aged just seven, he decided that dancing was his destiny – he took lessons, against his father’s will, and never looked back, with both the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets fighting to enrol him. However, in 1961 Nureyev defected from the USSR after he was ordered to return to the Soviet Union – concerned he’d never get to go abroad again if he went back, he spent the rest of his life travelling, but found his real success in London. It was when he was partnered with Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet Company that he soared to stardom, gaining international acclaim. Nureyev essentially coach surfed his way around London, even when he brought a house near Richmond Park in 1967 (he found it too isolating), spending most of his time with his ‘parents in the West’, dance critics Nigel and Maude Gosling, who were also friends of Fonteyn. This is where the blue plaque can be found.

Address: 27 Victoria Road, Kensington, W8 5RF

Nearest tube stop: High Street Kensington

Rudolph Nureyev full facade
The home of friends and dance critics Nigel and Maude Gosling, with whom Nureyev regularly lived with | © English Heritage

Sir Robert Watson-Watt (1892–1973)

Claim to fame: The ‘father of radar’

What’s the story?

Sir Robert Watson-Watt’s invention the ‘huff-duff’, which was originally designed to accurately track thunderstorms via radio signals for the Met Office, became a ‘secret weapon’ in the Battle of Britain victory. The huff-duff could reveal the location of an enemy radio to operators, allowing the RAF to surprise and intercept the Luftwaffe over France before they headed over the channel. The Scotsman lived in London during the war years, where he was knighted for his efforts in 1942, and later lived in Canada and the States before heading back to Scotland. While in Canada he ironically got caught speeding with a radar gun and reportedly said: ‘Had I known what you were going to do with it, I would never have invented it!’

Address: 287 Sheen Lane, London SW14 8RN

Nearest train station: Mortlake

Portrait of Sir Robert Watson-Watt | © Wikicommons
Sir Robert Watson-Watt’s house on Sheen Lane | © Wikicommons

Sir John Gielgud (1904–2000)

Claim to fame: West End superstar

What’s the story?

If the walls of 16 Cowley Street could speak… this beloved 18th-century home bore witness to 31 years of Sir John Gielgud’s highest and lowest moments, from when he was knighted in 1953 following his successful career as one of the nation’s finest stage actors, to when he was arrested and charged for homosexual activities a few weeks later, which led to a personal breakdown. Gielgud lived in his Grade II-listed home designed by Barton Booth, another successful actor, with a menagerie of pets, including two owls and a cockatoo.

Gielgud is one of the few actors to have ever won an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony and was known primarily for his Shakespearean roles. The Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was renamed in 1994 in honour of the actor; Gielgud starred here in The Importance of Being Earnest in 1939 when it was formerly the Hicks Theatre.

Address: 16 Cowley Street, Westminster, SW1P 3LZ

Nearest tube stop: Westminster/St James’s Park

House straight on-1
Sir John Gielgud’s house on Cowley Street | © English Heritage

Looking for more interesting buildings to visit in London? Take our walking tour of London’s top 20th-century landmarks.