What Happened To Sue Ashworth Exploring London’s Blue Plaques: A Connection to the Past London’s iconic blue ceramic plaques serve as a bridge between the historical figures of yesteryears and the present-day buildings. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the Blue Plaques program, managed by English Heritage, stands as a testament to preserving the rich heritage of the city.
English Heritage, headquartered in London, oversees over 400 historical sites and monuments across the United Kingdom, including renowned landmarks like Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall. Their portfolio encompasses a staggering array of treasures, from prehistoric sites and castles to Roman relics, historical gardens, palaces, and medieval villages.
Among English Heritage’s most enduring and successful initiatives is the Blue Plaques program. This initiative aims to ensure that locations not only showcase their architectural significance but also narrate the stories of exceptional individuals and their accomplishments. As you wander through London, whether as a tourist, resident, or visitor, you may unexpectedly stumble upon these elegantly crafted blue ceramic plaques. What exactly are these plaques, where do they originate, and what do they signify?
London boasts more than 900 Blue Plaques, each commemorating artists, scientists, writers, activists, and politicians. The list of honorees includes luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon, among others.
My first encounter with a blue plaque left a lasting impression. From a distance, I noticed this beautiful ceramic object adorning a building’s facade. I was intrigued by its presence and, upon closer inspection, learned that I was standing before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s former composing studio, where he penned one of his early compositions in 1764. This moment was transformative. Having admired Mozart since the age of 14, I immediately grasped how blue plaques could alter people’s perceptions of the places they walk by daily. From then on, I made it a habit to seek out these plaques while exploring London, eagerly anticipating each new discovery and the historical insights it offered.
Significance of the Blue Plaques Program
The Blue Plaques project’s mission is to breathe life into history, not just by appreciating architecture but by also chronicling the lives and accomplishments of remarkable individuals. Standing before a blue plaque creates a unique connection between us and the artists, writers, scientists, athletes, politicians, and actors we have long admired. Each plaque offers a deeper understanding of Britain’s rich history, allowing us to learn while standing where history unfolded.
The Blue Plaques program has been enriching London for over 150 years, with English Heritage taking over its administration in 1986. Initially, English Heritage sought to extend its scope to various British cities and historical sites but found that many already had their plaque programs. Consequently, they decided to focus primarily on London, allowing local councils to create their own unique plaques for honoring prominent figures from their regions.
To identify an official Blue Plaque, it helps to know the four organizations that have been pivotal to the program’s success throughout its history. The Society of Arts initiated the plaques, later passed on to the London County Council in 1901, which managed them for 35 years. From 1965, the Great London Council and English Heritage jointly continued the program until 1986, when English Heritage assumed full responsibility. If you spot these organization names or logos on a plaque, you can be confident of its authenticity.
The tradition of honoring notable individuals with Blue Plaques continues today. In 2016, English Heritage unveiled eight new plaques dedicated to figures such as Sir Frederick Ashton, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Blackett, and Dame Margot Fonteyn.
Proposing a Plaque
Remarkably, anyone inspired to see a Blue Plaque commemorating a respected figure can play a part in the process. Most, if not all, of the Blue Plaques have been initiated through public suggestions. English Heritage welcomes well-researched and meticulously documented proposals from the public.
The creation of each Blue Plaque commences with a public nomination. The process, from the initial application to the plaque’s unveiling, spans nearly three years. Applications undergo review three times annually. A panel then delves into the submission, focusing on the documentation that connects the prominent individual with the chosen site for the Blue Plaque. If the application gains approval, the plaque’s production begins, involving design, fabrication, and obtaining permission for installation. The final step involves a public unveiling, a celebratory moment for all involved.
History of Design and Manufacturing
The design history of Blue Plaques has evolved dynamically over the years. The earliest plaques were crafted from various materials, including terra cotta, bronze, and marble. In 1897, the plaques bore an earthy, deep brown color due to the cost constraints of alternative clays and colorants.
Studying the histories of the four organizations that have overseen the Blue Plaques program offers insights into identifying the organization responsible for a particular plaque. This identification often hinges on the materials used, borders, patterns, and font designs.
The Society of Arts initially commissioned Stoke-on-Trent-based pottery Minton, Hollins & Co. to produce the first plaques. Known for their intricate ceramic tiles used in iconic buildings such as The Palace of Westminster and the Victoria and Albert Museum, their plaques are distinguished by a prominent border featuring the society’s name integrated into the design.
By 1901, the London County Council had taken charge and continued collaborating with Minton, Hollins & Co. However, they sought a more decorative and stylized approach, resulting in a wreath border adorned with the L.C.C.’s initials at the top of the plaque. This design remained until Royal Doulton took over plaque production from 1924 to 1955. The wreath design persisted until World War II when an unknown student from the Central School of Arts and Crafts revamped the L.C.C. design in 1938. This redesign simplified the plaque’s appearance, making it cleaner and bolder. Remarkably, this forward-thinking design remains largely unchanged to this day.
From 1965 to 1983, the Great London Council and English Heritage retained this modern and innovative design to ensure uniformity across all future plaques. They collaborated with Carter’s Tile Co., who meticulously adhered to the specifications for each plaque, maintaining exacting attention to detail. The manufacturers were instructed to create plaques that were 20 inches in diameter, 2 inches thick, prominently displaying the name of English Heritage at the top and their logo at the bottom. Every aspect, from spacing to font usage, adhered to the prevailing design specifications.
The Current Plaque Makers
Since the program’s inception, all plaques were handmade by large potteries or manufacturers. However, in 1984, Frank and Sue Ashworth, a husband-and-wife team based in Cornwall, took on the responsibility of crafting the plaques according to precise specifications set by English Heritage.
Situated in Cornwall, near the Bernard Leach Pottery and St. Ives, Frank and Sue Ashworth are ceramic artists deeply connected to Britain’s studio pottery and ceramic tradition. For more than three decades, they have worked in tandem to create over 200 plaques and counting. Their meticulous craftsmanship encompasses every aspect, from shaping the clay body to inscribing the raised text, reflecting their skillful hands’ precision.