Strict rules govern the erection of Blue Plaques, the circular memorial tablets in Wedgwood blue that mark the residences of celebrated historical figures. The person commemorated must have been dead for 20 years or have passed the centenary of their birth; should be considered eminent by other members of their profession or calling; have made an important contribution to human welfare or happiness; must have resided in the property at a time of importance in their life or work; and their name must be recognisable to the ‘well informed’ passer by.
Such strict criteria do not seem to bother the scheme’s many imitators. A recent survey of commemorative plaque schemes shows that local authorities have begun to adopt Blue Plaques as a means of promoting tourism, occasionally aided and abetted by the Heritage Lottery Fund, as is the case with the Rhondda Cynon Taf heritage plaque commemorating the renowned Dr William Price.
Never heard of him? Shame: he performed ‘the first legal cremation in the UK in modern times’, according to his plaque; as a Druid, he believed burial was a sin against the earth, and so he cremated the body of his dead five-month-old son, Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ) on 18 January 1884. Price was prosecuted, but won his case on the grounds that an action is not illegal in law unless it is specifically proscribed. When Price himself died in 1893, his own public cremation, on a hill overlooking Llantrisant, was watched by 20,000 people.
Commemorating Price might seem a sensible choice given some of the more peculiar locations deemed worthy of a plaque. These include the Broadoak Hotel in Ashton-under- Lyne, famed as the location for the recording of the first ever edition of Radio 4’s long-running Gardeners’ Question Time, or the former ICI research laboratory in Northwich, Cheshire, proclaimed as ‘The Birthplace of Polythene’. Laurel and Hardy once stayed in a hotel in Southend, so that gets a plaque, as does a building in Aylesbury, Bucks, that stands on the site of a theatre where Ronnie Barker first performed on stage. Diana, Princess of Wales, is a popular choice for a plaque: Swadlincote, in Derbyshire, gets one even though she never visited the place; it marks the spot where people laid wreaths following her death in August 1997.
English Heritage is sometimes derided for the strictness with which its Blue Plaque Committee applies the rules, and for rejecting, for example, Mark Bolan and L Ron Hubbard as suitable subjects for a Blue Plaque on the grounds of their ‘insufficient stature or historical significance’, but their rules do seem sensible when you consider the alternatives.
Westminster Abbey Chapter House (see CA 244) was officially reopened on 26 May 2010 with a new set of gargoyles. Thirty-two new heads have been added to the building’s eight pinnacles, replacing some of the Victorian heads that had become unstable through erosion. There are now 64 heads in total, and in keeping with masonry traditions, the new heads are portraits of the people involved in the project. They include the members of the 20-strong team of master carvers and stonemason who worked on the restoration, Westminster Abbey clergy, and members of the English Heritage project team.
Astonishingly this harmless bit of fun, following a tradition long-established in stone-masonry circles, provoked outrage in certain sections of the press. The Daily Express declared the portraits of English Heritage staff to be a ‘monument to the vanity of quangos’, while the Taxpayers’ Alliance declared that the heads should have depicted the ‘taxpayers who funded the project’ (what, all 26 million of us?) but then decided that perhaps the heads should stay as ‘a warning to future generations about the dangers of letting quangos get too pleased with themselves’. It was sad, though, to see Building Design magazine joining the braying mob and demanding to know why English Heritage saw fit to ‘award itself such an honour’. They at least should be well aware that the members of the English Heritage team had all played a significant hands-on role in the project, and were far from being the faceless bureaucratic paper shufflers of the popular imagination.
The fickleness of fame (or infamy, in this case) was demonstrated all too vividly last month with press pictures of Josef Stalin’s statue being torn down in Gori, the town of his birth in Georgia. It follows the news that the Morris Singer Art Foundry – responsible for casting the bronze lions that adorn London’s Trafalgar Square, the Old Bailey’s dome-topping figure of blind Justice, the statue of Boudicca and her chariot outside the Houses of Parliament and the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace – has been placed in administration.
The reason given for the financial collapse of the company, founded in 1848 as the J W Singer Foundry in Frome, Somerset, is that governments around the world have cut back on grand monuments of the kind in which the foundry specialised – in particular, governments led by tyrannical megalomaniacs. Saddam Hussein, for example, was a big customer of the Foundry – except that, in the manner of cruel and oppressive dictators, he refused to pay the bill for the boastful monuments that he commissioned, and this forced the company into receivership once before in 2005.
Most recently, the company (now based in Braintree, Essex) has been producing bronzes for contemporary sculptors, though not on the scale of the 1960s, when public art was in great demand and the foundry was kept busy casting bronzes for Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Eduardo Paolozzi.
English Heritage is not for sale (yet); but imagine if some future Government did decide to privatise the nation’s heritage assets, how much would it cost to buy Stonehenge? Nigel Lewis, a property analyst with nothing better to do in the currently sluggish property market, asked 500 fellow estate agents for a valuation. The figure they came up with, based on annual visitor figures of around 900,000 and income of about £6m, was £51m.
Far cheaper is 10 Downing Street, at £5.2m; such a bargain price smacks of that typical estate agency trick of setting a low price to get a bidding war going among those who might aspire to live at one of the world’s most secure and well-known addresses. By comparison, Windsor Castle would cost you £390m, despite the proximity of Heathrow airport and Egham sewage works, while Brighton Pavilion is valued at £52m and Blackpool Tower at £60m.
On this basis, said Lewis, ‘the Government and Crown probably own enough land and property to pare down the national debt pretty significantly.’ Come to think of it, selling historic monuments is not as unlikely as it sounds: didn’t a Missourian businessman – Robert P McCulloch – purchase John Rennie’s London Bridge in 1968 from the City of London for US$2m and ship it to Lake Havasu in Arizona?
Rather than purchasing Stonehenge, an Australian Rotary Club stands to save a tidy sum by building a full-sized replica at a cost of A$1.2m (£722,749). ‘Stonehenge Down Under’ will be built on a site overlooking Twilight Beach, in Esperance, 460 miles south-west of Perth, in Western Australia. The small coastal community – whose only other attraction is small piece of the US Skylab which fell onto a nearby farm in 1979 – hopes that the project will generate much-needed tourist revenue. Kim Beale, a spokesman for the Esperance Rotary Club, said the Australian version would be a faithful reproduction of the original Neolithic structure in Wiltshire. It will be constructed of 100 stones, each weighing up to 45 tons, donated by a local quarry – though there is room to doubt just how faithful the facsimile will be when you learn that the local stone is pink granite!
In Norfolk, local entrepreneurs are also looking to heritage to give their seaside town a new lease of life. The tiny resort of Hemsby has decided to host its first ever Viking Festival this summer, featuring the odd bit of rape and pillage alongside ABBA tribute bands and re-enactors ‘torching’ a Viking ship on the beach. Roads into the village already feature signs depicting a Viking carrying a bucket and spade and the legend: Welcome to Hemsby – 1,200 Years of Seaside Fun.
The festival was dreamed up as a response to the closure of the former Pontin’s holiday camp at Hemsby, whose demise left local business owners worried for their future. Simon Middleton, the brand strategy guru advising the local community on ways to attract tourism, said that he chose the Viking theme when he looked into Hemsby’s history and discovered that ‘it didn’t start in the 1950s; it started in about AD 800 when the Vikings invaded’.