Surrey's Blue Plaques - Signs of the times

Blue plaques have long been used in London to celebrate some of the more important historical abodes of famous personalities. Now the trend is spreading, and you may be surprised by just who has called Surrey home. Geoffrey West finds out more

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2008

Blue plaques have long been used in London to celebrate some of the more important historical abodes of famous personalities. Now the trend is spreading, and you may be surprised by just who has called Surrey home. Geoffrey West finds out more

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Did you know that Enid Blyton, the creator of Noddy and The Famous Five, lived in Chessington for several years? Or how about the fact that Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul's Cathedral, resided in East Molesey? Ever realised that Virginia Woolf's home town was Richmond?

These are just a few of the famous characters who have lived in and around Surrey over the years, and have now had their former homes commemorated with a blue plaque. Set into the brickwork of houses, these ceramic blue and white discs have been used in London for over 140 years, but in recent years, the practice has become far more widespread.

Here in Surrey, we now have scores of plaques across the county marking out the former homes of our best known historical figures. At the moment, most of these are in the Richmond and Hampton areas, but the numbers are rising in other towns too, such as Dorking, Croydon and Grayshott. 

So what is it like to have a plaque on your home? We asked Derek Melotte, who lives with partner Jennifer Williamson in the Croydon house that was once the home of illustrious naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin.

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"We're pleased when we see people stop to look at our house's plaque," says Derek. "Nobody knocks on the door or pesters us, and the ceramic panel gives our home a distinct character. 

"We didn't know much about Mr Wallace before living here, but finding out about his life was all part of the enjoyment of restoring and decorating this house in the style of its Victorian heyday. Our predecessor lived here from 1880 to 1883, paying an annual rent of �45."

Indeed, if someone famous has lived in your house, and you can commemorate the connection with a plaque, not only will you breathe history into the bricks, you'll add the kind of individuality money just can't buy. 

Ultimately, it's the local authority that has to grant approval, so there's nothing to stop you getting a plaque erected to your Great Uncle Ethelbert - providing the council gives permission.

Surrey residents immortalised with blue plaques

ENID BLYTON (1897-1968) 207 Hook Road, ChessingtonThe creator of Noddy and the Famous Five lived here from 1920-24, working as a nursery governess, and writing her first book. Blyton wrote more than 700 more and became one of Britain's most popular children's writers. JOHN BEARD (1717-1791) and WILLIAM EWART MP (1798-1869) Hampton Public Library, Rose Hill, Hampton. Humanitarian reformer MP William Ewart spent his early years in this house (where John Beard passed his retirement). His achievements include a parliamentary act reducing the number of offences punishable by hanging and a bill leading to free public libraries. He also came up with the idea for blue plaques. LEONARD AND VIRGINIA WOOLFHogarth House, 34 Paradise Road, Richmond Upon ThamesThese original members of the literary Bloomsbury Group founded the Hogarth press here in 1917, two years after moving to Richmond. They stayed until 1924, during which period Virginia Woolf published her novels Night and Day and Jacob's Room. JOHN HORNIMAN(1803 -1893) and FREDERICK JOHN HORNIMAN (1835-1906)Coombe Cliff Centre, Coombe Road, Croydon. Quaker tea merchant John Horniman allegedly invented the 'packet' for the selling of leaves, and his son Frederick John was an equally astute businessman. Horniman junior built up an enormous collection of artifacts from around the world (the Horniman Museum and Gardens) in London, which he donated to the council. SIR EDWIN CHADWICK (1801-1890) 5 Montague Road, RichmondSir Edwin was knighted for his lifelong campaigning for public health measures. His admirable effort investigating poverty and deprivation, and work as a Poor Law reformer, presaged the passing of a series of public health acts in the late 1840s.SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN (1632-1723) The Old Court House, Hampton Court Green, East MoleseyThe architect of St Paul's Cathedral and 50 other London churches was also a mathematician, scientist and astronomer, Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London, then at Oxford University. After the Great Fire of London, this brilliant designer spent 40 years rebuilding the ravaged areas.ARTHUR HUGHES (1832-1915)Eastside House, 22 Kew Green, Richmond. A fan of Pre-Raphaelite artists Millais, Rosetti and Holman Hunt, this young artist spearheaded a resurgence of Pre-Raphaelite ideals, working with contemporaries William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Throughout his life, Hughes continued to work in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, and the picture above shows one of the many enchanting scenes that he painted.BERNARDO O'HIGGINS (1778-1842)Clarence House, 2 The Vineyard, Richmond. The liberator of Chile, O'Higgins lived and studied here in his early life, then returned to his native Chile, where he joined the nationalist movement. In 1818, as dictator of the country, he ejected Spanish forces, and organised the government. DAVID GARRICK (1717-1779) Garrick's Villa, Hampton Court RoadIn his day, the most acclaimed and influential actor on the English stage, Garrick was manager of the Drury Lane theatre for 30 years. He began his professional stage career at 24, creating an overnight sensation as Richard III in an insalubrious theatre in Whitechapel (as depicted in this painting by Hogarth) .JAMES THOMSON (1700-1748) The Royal Hospital, Kew Foot Road, Richmond. Described as the 'cult figure who occupies the gap between Milton and Wordsworth', this influential Scottish poet and playwright wrote the lyrics for Rule Brittania in 1740, a year after he moved to this house, which is now part of the former Royal Richmond hospital.ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE (1823-1913) 44 St Peter's Road, CroydonNaturalist Wallace formulated his own theory of natural selection after travels in the Malay Archipelago, independently of Charles Darwin's ideas, which were then not widely known. A joint paper by the pair was delivered to the Linnean Society in 1858.ALFRED BESTALL, MBE (1892-1986) 58 Cranes Park, SurbitonGifted artist, royal academician and illustrator for Punch and Tatler magazines, Bestall is best known as writer of the Rupert Bear tales. He lived and worked here from 1936-66, in that time producing over 250 stories of Rupert's antics.

Blue plaque milestones

1867 The first plaque was erected to Byron at his birthplace in Holles Street, London, by the Royal Society of Arts. It is deep blue with white lettering, and has the RSA name around the edge. 

1867 - 1900 Most plaques were brown.

1901 London County Council (LCC) took over the scheme for London, substituting their name for the RSA.

1902 The white border was added.

1902 - 1921 The LCC experimented with designs in stone, metal and glazed terracotta, square/rectangular shapes and different colours.

1921 Glazed Doultonware was chosen as standard and blue was the principal colour.

1938 A simplified design was agreed, the basis for subsequent plaques.

1945 A blue background and white lettering was adopted for all.

1981 Manufacture ended at Doulton and is now done by independent craftspeople. 

1986 English Heritage took over the scheme, though outside of London it is run by local authorities.

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