I ENJOY ENTERING HOUSES in which famous characters once lived. It gives me a thrill to think that I am entering rooms where, for example Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Franklin, once lived and worked. But, how does one know where these personalities once resided? In London, that is quite easy because the homes and places where famous historical characters lingered are marked with blue (usually) plaques recording their occupation of these buildings. In other parts of the world, signing is often attached to the places which were occupied by well-known or, sometimes once famous, men and women.
In London, many of these plaques which are circular with white writing on a blue background. They are known as “blue plaques”. According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the first blue plaque scheme was started by the Society of Arts in 1867. The first of these was installed in 1867 (on a house which has since been demolished). It commemorated the birthplace of Lord Byron. Another early one (in King Street, London SW1) commemorates Napoleon III, who “lived here, 1848”. He lived there from February 1847 until September the following year. It is one of, if not the only, blue plaque to be put up whilst the person named on it was still alive.
We are fortunate to live in a part of London rich in blue plaques and similarly purposed plaques of different colours. Kensington was favoured by the rich and famous (in all fields of activity) and remains so. The names on the plaques differ, and that is not surprising, but so do the words describing the nature of the person’s occupancy of the marked buildings. A small plaque in Sheffield Terrace in Kensington, records that the author GK Chesterton was “born” in a house on that street but gives no indication of how long he stayed in that place. In contrast, there is a house not far away which records that “Dame Agatha Christie … lived here 1934-41”, a good length of time, accurately recorded. Incidentally, I have enjoyed strolling through the rooms of Greenway, the house overlooking the River Dart, which she used to own and occupied during her holidays.
Much vaguer than Agatha’s is the plaque in Palace Court, which reads “ALICE MEYNELL 1847-1922 POET AND ESSAYIST lived here”, because it gives the passer-by no clue as to how long the building was home to Ms Meynell (actually she was ‘Mrs’ but as a promoter of women’s rights, she would have probably liked the title ‘Ms). Not far from this plaque, there is another one in Portobello Road. It informs someone walking past that “George Orwell … lived here.” Again, we are not made privy to how long the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” lived on this street, which in normal, virus-free times is flooded with tourists heading for the Portobello Road street market. It would fill me with a sense of well-being to know I was sharing the same roof as someone as illustrious as, in this case, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair). And, no doubt it would impress some of my friends and family. However, if they knew that Orwell had only lived there for one winter in 1927, they might be less awed.
One of my favourite composers of western classical music is the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The first classical LP I ever bought was his Second Symphony. So, I was excited to find a blue plaque with his name in Gloucester Walk in Kensington. It is a “lived here” plaque. However, according to the memorial, he only lived in this lovely part of London in 1909. A little research reveals that it was only a few weeks in that year. I think the wording “stayed here” would have been more appropriate than the wording on display. There is a brown circular plaque in Kensington Square, which reveals that “WM Thackeray … lived here”. This is an honest record because the novelist did live in the house from 1846 until 1854. Close to Thackeray’s former home, we can find a blue plaque recalling “TS Eliot (1888-1965) … lived and died here.” He lived there from 1957 until his death. This is also an honestly worded plaque.
I have long been interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. I was excited to discover recently that the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth (1802-1894; ‘Kossuth Lajos’, to use the correct Hungarian version of his name) had spent time near where I live in Kensington. His blue plaque is on a house in Chepstow Villas, not far from Portobello Road. According to the plaque, he “stayed here”, rather than “lived here”. He stayed there in 1851, whilst on a three-week lecture tour in England, during which he spoke to the English about Hungarian independence and his exile. Of these three weeks, maybe only a few nights were spent at this address in Kensington, or, he and his family, who did spend another seven years in England, might have lived in the house in Chepstow Villas. Possibly, the plaque should be worded “lived here”, rather than “stayed here”.
Number 18 Melbury Road, near Holland Park and the oddly-shaped Design Museum (formerly, the Commonwealth Institute), offers us two blue plaques, one a “lived here” and the other a “stayed here”. The pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) “Lived and died here”. The other plaque on the building records that Cetshwayo (c. 1832-1884), King of the Zulus, “stayed here in 1882”. When I first spotted this plaque several years ago, I was intrigued, and wrote a little about it (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/ ) , which I will repeat here:
“Earlier in 1882, this house, built in 1877, hosted a very important guest, King Cetshwayo (Cetshwayo, ka Mpande, c1832-1884), King of the Zulus. After being defeated by the British in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Cetshwayo was held captive in Cape Town. During his exile, he visited London in 1882:
“On his arrival, 18 Melbury Road … was made more appropriate to his needs and those of his chiefs. The beds, for instance, were reduced to floor level. On waking on 5 August, the ex-king ‘made his way through the various rooms of the house, examining them with curiosity’.
Outside, a huge crowd of people had gathered, eager to see Cetshwayo. The Times described how ‘at times the ex-king would appear for a moment at one of the windows, and he was invariably greeted with cheers’. Cetshwayo himself looked upon the throng ‘as a display of friendly feeling towards him’. By the close of his visit, he had become something of a celebrity.
In an interview given while at Melbury Road, Cetshwayo said that he regarded the war as ‘a calamity’. He had made it clear that the purpose of his visit to England was his restoration to the throne, reasoning that his people wanted him and that there would be another war if he didn’t return. Following a meeting with Gladstone and a visit to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, his reinstatement was agreed.”. The British allowed him to return to Zululand in 1883.”
Would the famous artist have met the African king in Melbury Road? I doubt it because Holman Hunt only moved into his final home from 1903 onwards. However, Cetshwayo might have seen or been seen by another artist Colin Hunter (1841-1904), who lived nearby on Melbury Road from 1877 until his death. His home was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Woodsford Court, built on its site, bears a blue plaque, appropriately of the “lived here” variety. By the way, if you are ever near to it, a leisurely stroll along Melbury Road will delight those fascinated by late Victorian domestic architecture.
For my favourite memorial placed on a building to commemorate its occupancy by a notable person, we must transport ourselves to Palermo in Sicily. The island of Sicily is full of plaques celebrating the temporary presence of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in this place or that. This might not be surprising because he did travel a lot around western Sicily while fighting the Bourbons. In a square in Palermo, I spotted a grand marble plaque carved with the words: “In questa illustre casa il 27 Maggio 1860 per sole due ore poso le stanche membra Giuseppe Garibaldi”, which loosely translated means ‘Garibaldi, rested his weary limbs in this illustrious house for only two hours on the 27th of May 1860.” So, it sems that a two-hour stay is enough to bring fame to a building, providing the temporary occupant is worth remembering. I am not sure whether it would be justifiable for one of our local supermarkets used by a former Prime Minister to put up a plaque with the wording “David Cameron stayed here”, or even “Peter Mandelson shopped here”, but one can never tell what the future holds.