Being a Blue Plaques historian

 24 April 2012

Esther Godfrey works for English Heritage, and spent part of her career there as a Blue Plaques Historian. She explains what the job involves and the impact the blue plaques team make in celebrating London’s past.

The Blue Plaques scheme put up around nine plaques a year. Photograph copyright Charles Walker
The Blue Plaques scheme put up around nine plaques a year. Photograph copyright Charles Walker

"Growing up in London, I've always loved the Blue Plaques, placed around the city to commemorate a link between that place and a famous person or event.

"Often the first thing I knew about a historical figure was the house they lived in. So for me, the plaques illuminate the capital's past."

Working as a historian

"I worked for a year as a historian in the Blue Plaques Team at English Heritage. The job involves researching figures suggested to feature on these plaques, so I got to delve into the lives of some of London's most fascinating inhabitants.

"I get to delve into the lives of some of London's most fascinating inhabitants."

“The Blue Plaques scheme used to put up twelve to fifteen plaques a year – a number now reduced to around nine, owing to funding restrictions – and almost all of them are erected as a result of suggestions made by the public. So they reflect the interests of Londoners in a very real way.

"From time to time, the work could be frustrating. In some cases it proved impossible to find a suitable surviving building on which to place a blue plaque (one of the scheme's rules is that only the very building in which an individual lived or worked will do).

"This may be because a person has stayed in the city for a relatively short time, and his or her name is not to be found in records such as electoral registers and local directories."

Reflecting the diversity of London

"It is telling that in recent years, the number of Black and Asian figures proposed has risen, as their sometimes-overlooked achievements gain wider recognition. Many of those commemorated with a blue plaque were born here, but a far greater number made their way to the capital from elsewhere in Britain or from overseas.

"The distinctive cultural atmosphere which characterises London is due to ethnically diverse communities. Fields as far apart as politics, entertainment, medicine and sport have been enhanced by the people who have come here over the centuries."

"Once the centre of a vast empire, London has always drawn people from around the world – some ultimately helped dismantle Britain's empire and create new governments.

"London can claim to have played a role in the formation of the independent states of India, Pakistan and Kenya, amongst others and there are plaques to mark the lodgings of Gandhi (1869-1948) and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) whom lived here as law students.

"Plaques can also hint at the everyday details of lives destined for greatness. Gandhi found that the landlady of his Baron's Court boarding house struggled to cater for his vegetarian diet, and the meals she provided often left him hungry.

"Whilst in Notting Hill, Jawaharlal Nehru lived what he later described as 'a soft and pointless existence' of which cards and champagne were conspicuous features."

Choosing new subjects for a Blue Plaque

"For years we have been looking for an address to commemorate Bob Marley (1945-81), but so far it has proved very difficult to pin him down. There are many stories about where he lived or stayed during his stays in London but hard evidence is lacking.

"For me, the Blue Plaques illuminate the capital's past."

"In recognition of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, we hoped to honour eighteenth-century black figures connected with the movement: Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, and Ottobah Cugoano.

"Sadly, long and painstaking research has not yet identified suitable addresses for any of these men. But we have discovered much about their London lives in the course of that research, and our findings have been disseminated to the public through other activities such as guided walks."

"Although many plaques to Black and Asian figures have been erected since Gandhi was first commemorated in 1954, we are aware that these memorial tablets – nearly thirty in all – are only a partial reflection of the contribution made by these communities to the wider life of London. We are working to encourage further nominations in this area.

"Earlier in 2012 a plaque was put up to the singer and actress Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003), and there are many exciting figures awaiting further research, including London's first Black mayor, John Archer (1863-1932)."

For more information on the Blue Plaques scheme, and to find out how to make a proposal for a plaque in London, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/blueplaques.


Stay updated

Sign up for our weekly careers newsletter

View our privacy policy.

Related jobs & apprenticeships

Related events & opportunities