First introduced in the 1860s, the Blue Plaques scheme was created to commemorate important and influential people, an idea that was taken up by the English Heritage in 1986. Today, London has just under 900 plaques on walls in almost every borough, in memory of famous people who lived or worked in a particular building, or to draw attention to an event that occurred there. Join our tour of ten of the most significant Blue Plaques in the city and discover some of humanity’s greatest treasures.
Inscription: ‘Sir Winston Churchill, K. G. 1874-1965 Prime Minister lived and died here.’ One of Britain’s most well-known Prime Ministers and a defining figure of the 20th century, Winston Churchill is best remembered for leading Britain to victory in WW2. His experience working both in the army and later in politics meant that he was able to hold several different positions during his time in government, including his time spent as Prime Minister. Churchill’s defining features were his swift organisational skills, decisive leadership, and most famously, his inspirational, impassioned speeches which are still quoted today. His Blue Plaque was erected in 1985 at his former residence in Kensington, and today his old home is valued at £14.8m!
Inscription: ‘Emmeline Pankhurst, 1858-1928, Dame Christabel Pankhurst, 1880-1958, Campaigners for Women’s Suffrage lived here.’ Stemming from the word ‘suffrage’, or ‘right to vote’, the Suffragettes championed the woman’s right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th century, most famously using violent methods (unlike the more peaceful suffragists). In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded women-only group the Women’s Social and Political Union, which she used to channel her focus on achieving the vote, along with her daughter Christabel and many others. The vote was given to women on July 2nd 1928, but sadly Emmeline had passed away the previous month. However, her actions and those of all the women who fought for the vote are still remembered today. The Pankhurst’s Blue Plaque was put up in 2006.
Inscription: ‘Rosalind Franklin, 1920-1958, Pioneer of the study of molecular structures including DNA lived here 1951-1958.’ When Rosalind Franklin passed the Cambridge admissions exam in 1938, it caused conflict with her father, who believed that women were not eligible for a university education. Luckily Rosalind’s aunt and mother were on her side, enabling Rosalind to complete a chemistry degree, a doctorate, and later a PhD. She began work on DNA and made some invaluable observations about its structure. After she left Cambridge in 1953, she also conducted studies on viruses, publishing numerous papers on the subject. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1938 meant that sadly she was unable to be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, as the award cannot be given posthumously. Instead, the award was given to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins. She is remembered today for her part in the discovery of the structure of DNA and for her innovative use of X-ray diffraction. The Blue Plaque in her name can be found in Chelsea and was put up in 1992.
Inscription: Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, Naturalist, lived in a house on this site 1838-1842. Charles Darwin became famous for his work on evolutionary theory by natural selection. He suggested that nature gradually evolved over many years in order to adapt to new environments, with many different creatures sharing the same original ancestor. Darwin experienced guilt and doubt as a result of his work, as it contradicted his Christian beliefs and, indeed, many argued that his findings went against the idea that God created all of nature. However, in 1859 he published his observations and findings in his best-known work, On the Origin of Species, which was to become one of the most influential books ever written. Charles Darwin died in 1882, but his work formed the basis for modern science today. His Blue Plaque was put up in 1961 by the London County Council at the Biological Sciences Building at University College.
Inscription: ‘Virginia Stephen, Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941, novelist and critic, born and lived here until 1904.’ One of Britain’s most famous female authors and critics, Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) is well known for her novels and essays on the topic of pioneering polemic themes such as feminism and the denial of women’s access to learned professions. The freedom Woolf felt in her writing led to her success as an author, documented by her numerous fascinating letters to friends and family. Some of her best-known novels include Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own.Her legacy was preserved by her husband Leonard after her tragic death due to mental illness, and her Blue Plaque was put up in 1974 at her childhood home in Fitzrovia. She remains a prominent figure in British literature today.
Inscription: ‘Ian Fleming, 1908-1964, Creator of James Bond lived here.’ When it comes to spies, there is none so famous as Ian Fleming’s fictional hero James Bond, otherwise known as 007. Over the course of his literary career, Fleming wrote 12 novels about Bond, and was believed to have used his experience gained working for British Naval Intelligence during WW2. Readers became entranced by Fleming’s tales of guns, girls, and glamour, and in 1962 his work was turned into one of the longest-running film franchises to date. Famous actors such as Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, and Pierce Brosnan have all played the legendary Secret Service agent in Hollywood blockbusters, and Bond remains a cherished part of British culture today. Fleming died in 1964, and his Blue Plaque was erected in 1996 at his old home in Belgravia.
Inscription: ‘In a house on this site, Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910, lived and died.’ In 1853, the Crimean War broke out and Florence Nightingale, a well-brought-up girl who loved maths and science, travelled with several other nurses to a hospital in Scutari, Turkey. There, she began work making the wards more hygienic, ensuring that patients were properly looked after and attempting to make the running of the hospital more orderly. She gained the nickname ‘Lady of the Lamp’ for walking the wards late at night to check on her patients. Even after she had returned home she continued to work on making nursing a suitable career for women and educating people about the importance of cleanliness in hospitals. We have her to thank today for her contributions to sanitary health care and the availability of medical care for all. Her success meant that she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, and her Blue Plaque was put up in 1955.
Inscription: ‘On this site stood a house occupied for some years by Captain James Cook, 1728-1779, Circumnavigator and Explorer.’ Captain James Cook was a British navigator and explorer who mapped much of the South Pacific Ocean. He kept his ships clean and ensured his crew ate plenty of fresh fruit to avoid scurvy, which meant that his voyages were able to last for several years. During his time at sea he explored the east coast of Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Easter Island, and the Hawaiian Islands. Despite initially getting on with the native Hawaiians who lived there, Cook was killed when a fight broke out over a stolen boat. His methods continued to be used after his death and ultimately his work changed our understanding of geography, paving the way for many more expeditions to come. His Blue Plaque was put up in 1970.
Inscription: ‘Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, Painter lived here 1873-1874.’ Vincent van Gogh’s style of art is defined by his bold and emotive use of colour, which he believed represented different emotions. He only became famous posthumously and was poor for most of his life, experiencing multiple episodes of depression. The artwork he produced during his short life included many portraits and rural landscapes, which he began to paint using his own individual style. Sadly he eventually lost his battle with depression and died after he shot himself in 1874. Today van Gogh is known as one of the most famous artists that ever lived, and many of his paintings are recognised as some of the world’s most well known pieces of artwork. His Blue Plaque was put up in 1973 in Lambeth.
Inscription: ‘Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, Founder of Psychoanalysis lived here 1938-1939.’ Also known as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud’s theories on the ego and child sexuality remain relevant to this day, and his work has been key to the study of the unconscious mind. He focused particularly on dreams, fantasies, and past traumatic experiences, which he encouraged patients to confront in order to be able to deal with them. He had many influential works and essays published, among them The Interpretation of Dreams.His work even led to the commonly-used expression ‘Freudian slip’ — referring to something which seems to have been said in error but may actually be revealing subconscious feelings. Freud’s daughter Anna also has a plaque in her name, bearing the inscription ‘Pioneer of Child Psychoanalysis’. Both Blue Plaques were put up in 2002 at the site of the Freud Museum. By Eleanor Russell