The story behind Hampshire’s blue plaques
PUBLISHED: 14:27 15 October 2018
From Jane Austen to Karl Marx, our towns and villages have fascinating links to some of the biggest historical celebrities. Viv Micklefield follows in their footsteps with the help of a blue plaque or two
Whether travelling along a busy highway or a backwater, the distinctive blue and white plaque visibly attached to a building often catches the eye. “Read me!” it insists.
Many such plaques follow the English Heritage London scheme, and that of its predecessors, which since 1866 has celebrated the link between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked.
Originally handmade, blue ceramic roundels set the trend but bronze, stone and lead ones can also be found, and plaques now come in various shapes and sizes. These days typically manufactured from aluminium, at a cost of around £900, it’s the nominee, be they local councils, societies, companies, or private individuals who usually foots the bill following an application and approval process.
Of course, the original building may have long since disappeared or changed its use. Don’t be surprised to discover for instance a poet laureate identified on the wall of a supermarket. Or a comedian now ‘living’ above a Chinese take-away. Yet, whether it’s a cultural icon recalled in the place that they found inspiration, or military heroes honoured close to a famous dockyard, the sentiment is the same.
“There’s no question that a blue plaque adds value to the visitor’s experience,” says David Evans, Portsmouth City Council’s sports and leisure facilities manager, adding: “People are fond of remembering others.”
15 July 2017 is a notable date in this part of Hampshire as it marks the town’s first blue plaque which was erected by the Aldershot Civic Society. The former home in Lysons Road of much loved comedian and actor Arthur English - who famously begin performing in music halls and went on to star in TV’s Are You Being Served?, holds the honour.
Beacons of Basingstoke
So plentiful are the blue plaques (which, incidentally, are predominantly rectangular) that a walking trail lasting approximately 90 minutes has been based around them. Old Town boasts the former site of the Assembly Rooms which hosted the dances attended by the young Jane Austen. And just metres away from here, not only did Oliver Cromwell check into the Falcon Inn, it was in Basingstoke that Thomas Burberry, inventor of the eponymous gabardine, had his factory.
Naturalist Gilbert White, cricket commentator John Arlott, and poet laureate Thomas Warton are also among those deserved of a mention. Whilst there’s even a blue plaque to commemorate the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer erected on a bus shelter at nearby Sherfield on Loddon.
Origins in Odiham
The famous Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons may now be based in London; however is roots were established at Odiham’s George Hotel back in 1783. It was here that the inaugural meeting of the Odiham Agricultural Society took place and where the group of local landowners and men of learning present had the idea of giving young farriers a scientific education to improve the treatment of sick animals.
Among the private homes commemorated, Robert Addison, one of only four chaplains to be awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One, and Manley James whose gallantry in both World Wars was also recognized by a VC, are commemorated.
The birthplace of celebrated botanist William Curtis is one of several sites highlighted in the town for their historical relevance or notable residents.
Peeking into Petersfield
Petersfield’s blue plaque trail leads the visitor around at least 17 buildings of significant interest. It appears novelist H.G. Wells regularly dined at what’s now known as The Old Drum. There’s the Dragon Street birthplace of John Worlidge whose books and experiments formed the basis of the English Agricultural Revolution; and in the 19th century, the Corn Exchange served as the Hampshire Regiment 3rd Volunteers’ HQ.
Built in 1590 and at once stabling over 100 horses, the White Hart was Petersfield’s main coaching inn for such distinguished guests as Samuel Pepys, Charles II and Peter the Great.
And the former Commercial Hotel holds the double distinction of having been owned by local College founder Richard Churcher, and by John Small maker of cricket balls and one of England’s finest batsmen.
Residing in Ropley
Proving that fact can be stranger than fiction, is the Handyside Bridge which achieved big screen fame in the Harry Potter franchise. Mid Hants Railway, with the support of Network Rail and the Railway Heritage Trust successfully relocated this listed footbridge from King’s Cross Station in 2013.
The inspirational inventor Hertha Ayrton, a trailblazer for women’s rights, has both a street named after her on The Hard and is recognized on the site of her Portsea birthplace. Whilst at the Wimbledon Park Sports Centre, the name in the frame is Margery Henderson who wrote the rules for the game of badminton.
Meanwhile, the roll-call of the area’s great and good continues elsewhere. Over a six-year period the City Council in partnership with English Heritage erected seven plaques in Southsea including ones to writer and Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, and to actor and comedian Peter Sellars, as well as a parade of military heroes.
The latest plaque unveiled by the Council is to local lad Sir Henry Ayres, one-time premier of South Australia and of Ayres Rock fame.
Spotlight on Southampton
Again, the English Heritage partnership bore additional plaques during the early noughties. Among these: Sir Henry James, director general of the Ordnance Survey’s residence at Rockstone Place; the birthplace of admiral of the fleet Earl Jellicoe at Cranbury Court; and the home of women’s campaigner Emily Davies at Carlton Crescent.
With the city requiring that those honoured have been dead for at least 20 years, in 2012 one of the plaques erected outside of this partnership is dedicated to Sir Arthur Henry Roston, captain of the RMS Carpathia who rescued all 706 survivors from SS Titanic.
Valued in Ventnor
Number 3 Alexandra Gardens, is where composer Sir Edward Elgar, he of the pomp and circumstance marches, honeymooned. Whilst long before becoming a statesman, Winston Churchill stayed as a child in Flint Cottage, Wheelers Bay Road.
Elsewhere, education pioneer Elizabeth Missing Sewell, one of several formidable 19th century Island women, is remembered at St Boniface Court formerly the Boniface Diocesan School which she founded. Nearby, among those who convalesced taking the sea air was political philosopher and father of modern socialism Karl Marx, at No 1 St Boniface Gardens; whilst ‘hidden’ heroes include Dr Arthur Hill Hassell, who revolutionized public health treatment and set up a ground-breaking sanatorium in Ventnor.