diamond geezer

 Friday, June 11, 2021

All the blue plaques in Newham

1) Will Thorne [Trade Union Leader, Politician]
1 Lawrence Road, West Ham, London, E13 0QD

Will Thorne was a pioneer of the Trade Union movement, inspired by being on the sharp end of working practices since he was a child. He moved from Birmingham to London at the age of 25 and took a job at a gasworks, where the introduction of new machinery spurred him to call a meeting which led to the creation of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. This soon had over 20000 members and Will took the position of General Secretary for the next 35 years. He was later President of the Social Democratic Federation. Mayor of West Ham and for 41 years a local MP. His 94.9% share of the vote in the Plaistow constituency in 1918 has never been exceeded by any other Labour politician. He died of a heart attack at home shortly after stepping down from Parliament, having led a fascinating life.

The house stands on a quiet street corner a few streets west of Upton Park station. This is a pleasant and leafy residential zone, not so far from West Ham Park, rather than amid the close-packed terraces that characterise some other parts of Plaistow. 1 Lawrence Road is relatively substantial, with two sets of bay windows rather than one, and somehow still fully pebbledashed. The front door's actually round the side, with a large handle above the step to aid access for whoever lives inside. I could imagine a retired trade union official living here but not a leading MP, not any more, for what it's worth.

2) Stanley Holloway [Actor, Singer]
25 Albany Road, Manor Park, London, E12 5BE

In contrast, Stanley spent his childhood in Manor Park and then moved away when he became successful. His route out started out via singing in his local church choir, before taking to the boards just before and during the First World War. Stanley found success on the West End stage and became one of BBC Radio's first variety performers. He became famous for his monologues, notably the boy-eating The Lion and Albert, and later moved into film. He appeared in Passport to Pimlico, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt, but his career peaked with My Fair Lady where his portrayal of Alfred P Doolittle earned an Oscar nomination.

I'd never been to Albany Road before this week because it's tucked away in a dead-end residential wedge between two railway lines. Even though Manor Park (Crossrail) and Woodgrange Park (Overground) stations are very close by, nobody would ever have a need to 'just pass through'. Perhaps because of this it's really pleasant, a street of cosy clustered houses with varied front gardens and lush hedges, and somewhere at least one cabbie chooses to call home. Number 25 has a narrow sloping porch, a small flowerbed and a diminutive parking space given over to two wheelie bins. Stanley'd probably laugh if you told him his 3-bed terrace was now worth half a million.

And that's it, there are only two blue plaques in the London borough of Newham.

I'm talking official English Heritage blue plaques here, not any local scheme (like that operated by Southwark council). Newham have erected a handful, the latest of which is on a wall behind a pharmacy in Woodgrange Road, Forest Gate. It marks the site of the Upper Cut Club, a music venue where Jimi Hendrix played on Boxing Day 1966 and where he wrote Purple Haze while waiting for the gig. That's a fantastic story, and much more interesting than the usual 'lived here', but you can perhaps see why it didn't make the English Heritage cut.

Bexley also only has two blue plaques, one at Red House where William Morris lived and one for Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. Given that there are 970 blue plaques in Greater London, Bexley and Newham are pitifully represented.

It gets worse. Three boroughs somehow only have one blue plaque.

» Barking & Dagenham has a plaque to footballer Bobby Moore in Waverley Gardens, just off the A13.
» Brent's sole blue plaque is for comedian Arthur Lucan a.k.a. Arthur Towle, Old Mother Riley.
» Sutton's singular plaque is for William Hale White, the novelist Mark Rutherford.

n.b. The City of London has only one official blue plaque, tucked away in Gough Square off Fleet Street. It's for lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, and what's more it isn't blue it's brown. But it was erected by The Society of Arts in 1876, just before the City Corporation took responsibility for all commemorations within its boundary, and their subsequent blue rectangles don't count as official blue plaques.

It gets worse. Two boroughs have no blue plaques at all, namely Havering and Hillingdon, not because nobody famous ever lived there but because English Heritage's scheme is historically skewed.

To illustrate this skew, the borough of Westminster has an astonishing 316 blue plaques, that's 33% of London's overall total. Kensington & Chelsea is next with 185 blue plaques, that's 19%, followed by Camden with 173 (or 18%). This means Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea have over half the total all by themselves, and Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Camden have 70%. Admittedly these three boroughs were once very much the heart of well-to-do residential London, back when art was being painted, books written and inventions discovered, but it still feels geographically short-sighted.

Only 14 other boroughs' plaques scrape into double figures, and only Richmond, Wandsworth, Lambeth, Hammersmith & Fulham and Tower Hamlets exceed 20. And even these don't reach 30, which would be the borough average if only the glut of plaques in the West End were equalled out. A bit of future diversity wouldn't go amiss, not just regarding who we commemorate but also where.

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