As the 1,000th marker is revealed, London’s historic blue plaques aim to increase inclusivity and representation.
LONDON (AP) — A resounding thump breaks the silence as Julia Land drops a lump of grey-brown clay onto the slab roller before Ned Heywood cranks it through the machine once, twice, three times, creating a rectangle about an inch thick.
Heywood places a design on the slab and cuts through the clay, forming a disc resembling an extra-large pizza. This disc will eventually transform into a blue plaque, which can be found on various buildings in London. These plaques serve as markers for significant locations where notable individuals such as scientists, artists, politicians, and activists have left their mark in history.
English Heritage is getting ready to reveal its 1,000th blue plaque this Tuesday. The organization is actively striving to expand the program to encompass a wider range of individuals, including women, people from minority ethnic backgrounds, and community groups. This effort aims to ensure that the plaques better represent the diverse population of the capital city.
The most recent establishment designates the offices where the Women’s Freedom League advocated for women’s equality during the early 1900s, successfully achieving at least two of their objectives.
“The names are now more diverse, reflecting the significant contributions made by people from various parts of the world who have immigrated to this country,” Heywood comments from his workshop in Chepstow, a Welsh town located 110 miles (180 kilometers) west of London. “This change is highly positive.”
The blue plaque program, which began in 1866 and is believed to be the first of its kind, provides an informal historical walking tour of London that commemorates notable people and their accomplishments by highlighting the places where they lived and worked.
The individuals being honored range from well-known figures such as wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and communist pioneer Karl Marx, to lesser-known individuals like theatrical wigmaker Willy Clarkson and civil engineer William Lindley, who constructed water and sewage systems globally. Additionally, there are plaques commemorating foreign figures like India’s inaugural prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and American rock star Jimi Hendrix, who had a brief stay in London.
English Heritage, the sponsor of the program since 1986, has expressed concern over the lack of diversity among past honorees. The majority of plaques, approximately 85%, have been dedicated to white males, while only 15% recognize women and less than 5% acknowledge individuals from Black and Asian backgrounds.
Anna Eavis, the curatorial director, stated that the charity is aiming to increase the number of nominations for women and individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds. The organization oversees approximately 400 historical sites including monuments, medieval castles, Roman forts, and country houses across England. It is important to maintain rigorous criteria for admission into this prestigious group.
Recently revealed plaques feature Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, an advocate for women’s suffrage and a critic of British governance in India; Ottobah Cugoano, originally from present-day Ghana, who was enslaved in Grenada and actively fought against slavery after attaining freedom; and Ada Salter, who became the first female mayor of a London borough.
“London has always been incredibly diverse, hasn’t it?” Eavis expressed. “Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that we acknowledge and represent this diversity, appreciating the valuable contributions made on the streets of London.”
Diana Yeh, a sociology senior lecturer at City University of London, emphasized the importance of expanding initiatives like the blue plaques to encompass overlooked histories. However, she also urged heritage organizations to engage in more comprehensive conversations about the problematic elements of English history, such as slavery and colonialism.
Yeh, whose research revolves around race, racism, and cultural politics, stated that while it may be simple to honor famous individuals who face marginalization, it is far more challenging to confront Britain’s troubled history. However, undertaking this arduous task is crucial for the betterment of future generations.
English Heritage installs a dozen blue plaques each year, selected from about 100 nominations. A committee reviews the nominees to decide which ones warrant commemoration and to ensure there is a real connection between each honoree and the site where the plaque is to be installed.
After a decision is finalized, the order is sent to Heywood’s studio, which has been producing plaques for English Heritage since 2016.
During a span of six weeks, Heywood and Land engage in the tasks of rolling and cutting the clay, engraving the disc with the name and achievements of the person being honored, and subsequently coating it with the distinctive blue glaze before subjecting it to high temperatures in a kiln. This procedure yields a monument of remarkable durability, capable of enduring as long as the structure it is affixed to, provided that the plaques do not fracture during the baking process at temperatures of 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,370 Fahrenheit).
Heywood mentions that we worship the deities associated with the kiln.
The initial plaque, which paid tribute to Lord Byron, was destroyed when the building it was attached to was demolished. However, the second plaque, placed in 1867, remains intact and serves as a reminder of the residence where Napoleon III, the final emperor of France, resided during his exile.
Plaque number 1,000 honors the Women’s Freedom League, a suffragist organization that used 1 Robert Street in central London as its base of operations during its most active period.
In 1907, a group of activists who disagreed with Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the well-known Women’s Social and Political Union, formed their own league.
The group, which had the motto “Dare to be free,” aimed for total emancipation for women. It advocated non-payment of taxes and backed a boycott of the 1911 census as ways to pressure the government to allow women to vote. In 1909, when women’s suffrage was omitted from the King’s Speech outlining the government’s legislative program, the league hired an airship to drop pamphlets over the capital.
Heywood and Land deeply understand the importance of the blue plaques. In order to fully immerse themselves, they occasionally attempt to connect with the individuals being honored.
While working on his plaque, Land listened to recordings of violinist Yehudi Menuhin for inspiration.
Before creating the memorial for his contributions to Colossus, the groundbreaking computer utilized for decrypting German codes in World War II, Heywood conducted research on electrical engineer Tommy Flowers.
“He played a crucial role in the overall effort of World War II,” Heywood stated. “Finally, he is receiving acknowledgement for the remarkable work he accomplished.”
Heywood holds a special admiration for scientists, whom he considers as the true heroes in enhancing the well-being of individuals. However, he does not hold the same regard for politicians, as they are transient figures.
However, as the creator of the plaque, he has the opportunity to leave his mark on each individual disc.
Surrounded by his tools, clay, and dust, Heywood expressed his deep knowledge and understanding of the town’s and country’s history, as well as the significant impact individuals have had on society.
“I cannot reword”
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