Commemorative plaques punctuate the urban environment, reminding us of the great events and personalities that have played a part in national history. They are most widespread in London, where the blue plaque scheme – currently administered by English Heritage – has been running since 1867. But such plaques are not confined to London; nor do they always date from the last one-hundred-and-forty years. And neither are they always blue. There are a number of British schemes that establish memorial tablets and they are run by diverse bodies that include local councils, civic societies, and community history associations. The Heritage Foundation, for example, whilst sticking to blue as its livery of choice, in 1995 established a nationwide programme of commemorative plates for important individuals in the fields of sport and the arts. That said, the great majority of plaques are in England: Wales and Scotland, bar Edinburgh, are far well less served. But perhaps that will soon change, since the Scottish Parliament is, at the time of writing, considering the creation of a national heritage plaques plan.
Problems of précis
No public commemoration is uncomplicated, though. To begin with, most memorial tablets – certainly those we’ve featured here – are not very large. The information that they carry must be visible to passers-by, but naturally that means they can’t say very much. Do they, in fact, obscure more than they reveal?
Take this plaque of George Leybourne. We are told that he was a music hall comic, and his sobriquet hints vaguely at the reason for his fame, but there’s no clue that he was also a celebrated song-writer. Nor do we discover what his act was like: was he popular or ground-breaking? There’s also the question of exactly who or what should be celebrated in memorials of this kind. For the historian, whatever is commemorated can be revealing about the society or the individuals offering the tribute, but perhaps not particularly edifying about the subject!
Deserving of tribute?
Are we collectively guilty of celebrating only ‘great and good’ people and acts? Churchill falls clearly into this category, but are we celebrating his rousing war leadership whilst forgetting his political failures and occasionally retrograde views? For that matter, is Chartwell important in its own right, or merely because of its former residents? This is precisely the sort of question popping up in the Scottish historical plaques debate at the moment.
Nevertheless, we might agree at least that such memorials have some value to tourism - leading the history explorer into the corners of towns that otherwise they might not see. Commemorative tablets are, too, nifty reminders of the past to the casual passer-by: at least they give some tangible sense of the social and physical spaces occupied by historical actors. That, to those of us who care about the social worth of history, is arguably their most important role.
Taking it further
If you have been intrigued by this topic, why not dip into some of the free learning materials available in Open Learn? You could try our history as commemoration unit, which builds on some of the ideas introduced here. Or, you can pursue further your interest in the heritage of Scotland. The Open University has also developed a new short course that you can do entirely online: Heritage, whose heritage? (A180) . Heritage issues are discussed in our arts foundation course too.