Why does Newham have so few Blue Plaques?
PUBLISHED: 12:00 28 May 2016
A century and a half ago, English Heritage began its blue plaque scheme to endorse "British innovation, creativity and success throughout history".
Take a wander through Kentish Town and you’ll spot one commemorating George Orwell, head to Marble Arch and you’ll glimpse Winston Churchill’s, pass through Bloomsbury and you’ll see one on Charles Darwin’s former abode.
But what about Newham, a borough overflowing with historical greats and geniuses?
Unfortunately, there are only two – one in Manor Park for actor Stanley Holloway and one in West Ham for trade unionist Will Thorne – compared with Westminster’s 302, Kensington and Chelsea’s 165 and Camden’s 163.
Perversely, there are more plaques devoted to the borough’s sons and daughters in other parts of London than in Newham itself.
“Newham has a long history of famous people, sporting greats, philanthropists and political heavyweights,” the Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, stressed.
“It is right that their time in the borough is recognised and we would want to see more blue plaques depicting this.”
The reason the borough is so deprived of plaques is because so much of it was destroyed by the twin traumas of the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz.
To qualify for a plaque, English Heritage requires that buildings associated with the great figure “survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised” – impossible in a place like Newham.
Sir Robin said the council gets around this need by naming public buildings, roads and community centres after the borough’s greats, such as Lister School (after pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister) and the Jack Cornwell Centre after the Battle of Jutland hero.
But that means prison reformer and face of £5 notes Elizabeth Fry – who lived in East Ham – is not recognised, nor statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, who lived in Plaistow, nor even the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived in Stratford.
Either way, if the scheme is still going nearer the end of this century, we can expect a trip to Newham to include a feast of blue plaques – Jermain Defoe, Lennox Lewis, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and, of course, Danny Dyer.
In the meantime, perhaps England’s first non-white under-18 footballer – West Ham’s John Charles, who was born in Canning Town’s Ordnance Road – could be the next figure given a plaque.
Historian Brian Belton, author of Johnnie the One: The John Charles Story, agrees.
“He was called ‘The One’ because he was the only black player in the England squad,” he said.
“He should be celebrated – his story goes against all the stuff you hear about West Ham being a racist club, because he never got any bother from the fans.”
Since John died in 2004, the soonest a plaque could be erected is 2024 – two decades after his death – but Brian believes planning now is a good idea.
“He was a good player,” he said. “He could have gone very far it hadn’t been for his alcoholism.
“But he set a great example, and he had a great view of life.”