Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them

The quirky tales behind London's commemorative icons revive Duncan Wu's enthusiasm for the city

September 24, 2009

The roads may be impassable, the air unbreathable, the Underground largely non-functional (especially at weekends), the pavements packed with mobs of tourists - but the sight of a blue plaque reminds the solitary passer-by of forgotten episodes in the capital's history; of the richness of the culture generated by its imperial past; of its ability to attract eminent figures from all corners of the world.

There are other books about blue plaques, but none is as thoroughly researched or as up to date as Emily Cole's Lived in London.

The bulk of the volume is a borough-by-borough account of each plaque (up to 2006), providing relevant biographical details of each personage or institution commemorated.

In an informative introduction, Cole provides a history of the scheme, which goes back to 1863, when it was first proposed (the earliest plaque, commemorating Lord Byron, dates from 1867). She deals incisively with the controversies and debates surrounding the undertaking, documenting its evolution into the well-organised English Heritage-funded operation it has become.

The result is a rigorously scholarly volume that provides the general reader - and anyone with an interest in London - with a varied social, political and cultural history of the capital.

Cole is respectful of the facts without ever being dry or lacking in humour. She is aided in part by the picture researchers at Yale, who have pursued unusual and surprising illustrations that sit on virtually every page of this handsome volume.

In what other book about London, I wonder, would one find photographs of Sir Flinders Petrie in Egypt in 1922; Rabindranath Tagore "at home" in Hampstead in 1912; Roger Fenton's photographic van in the Crimea in 1855; Marx and Engels picnicking on Hampstead Heath in 1864; Lillie Langtry's bedroom in 1895; Radclyffe Hall at a French bulldog show in 1928; Sir Howard Carter (and mummy) in 1925; Boris Karloff hamming it up as Fu Manchu; Albert Einstein posed awkwardly at Lord Haldane's front door in 1921; Mahatma Gandhi pressing the flesh in Bow in 1931; or George Seferis loitering in Piccadilly Circus in 1932?

These stand alongside memorable images of interiors and exteriors of emplaqued erections, many of which are either inaccessible to the public or, sadly, demolished - Van Gogh's drawing of his Brixton abode and that by John Ruskin of his residence in Herne Hill spring to mind.

If I have any reservation about the book, it is merely that from time to time, Cole ventures judgments that make me hesitate.

Can it really be that Edward Thomas' poems were written "in a style similar to Wilfred Owen"? And the observation that Tennyson's poetry "drew deep at the well of High Victorian emotions" seems so vague as to warrant a recasting of the word, if not the thought.

She refers to the poet Thomas Moore by the diminutive Tom, a liberty replicated in the index. There's no illustration of that particular plaque, so it's not possible to check whether she's following its example.

Of course, Moore was referred to in this way during his lifetime even by those who didn't know him personally, yet I can't help but feel that its mateyness is inconsistent with the formality accorded other "plaquees".

These reservations amount to a very small pile of sawdust, however, and hardly detract from the pleasures accorded by a book composed with a connoisseur's appreciation of the unusual and eccentric, as evidenced when Cole announces that A.E. Housman "lived a bachelor life".

Not only is her book beautifully designed and illustrated, but Cole's fascination with her subject is infectious, making it the sort of publication that should inspire its readers to undertake their own private walking tours of obscure reaches of the capital.

Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them

Edited by Emily Cole

Yale University Press, 656pp, £40.00

ISBN 9780300148718

Published 1 May 2009

Blue plaque-spotting is one of the few pleasures of modern London.

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