Street of Blue Plaques
Danny has been curating and creating English Heritage-style paper or vinyl plaques that commemorate real, former residents of houses and shops since 2011, based on historic census information from 1841-1911 and more recently the 1939 ID card register.
We might know a little about the last family to live in our house but who lived there over 100 years ago? What did they do? Where were they from? Having researched some family history online I used the same census and ID card register data (1841-1939) to find out who lived in my house in Walthamstow, and my fascination extended to the whole of my street. I really wanted to share what I was finding out and hit upon the blue plaque idea for the up-coming local Art Trail in 2011, part installation/part history lesson. I had them printed on paper, and cut them out by hand, and went up and down the street meeting neighbours I’d never met before, and convinced many to stick these plaques in their front windows for the three week trail. I got over 60 on display, quickly becoming a highlight of the trail. Many of the houses were so proud of their history they kept the plaques up for months, even years.
Alternative blue plaques are nothing new of course (Gavin Turk etc) but why copy the real blue plaques? The significance of the ‘real’ blue plaques is so ingrained in British psyche that it was important to me to mimic their appearance as I wanted viewers, even for a split second or unconsciously, to imbue these ordinary people with the same sense of wonder and achievement.
Admittedly it’s often their extraordinary occupations that are the most engaging aspect - from the extraordinarily tedious or grim (‘tallow melter’ and ‘sausage skin packer’), or incredibly specific (‘plastic fork cleaner’ and ‘Bovril porter’) to the wonderfully curious (‘lightning cartoonist’ and ‘saggar maker’s bottom knocker’) to the awfully sad (a 12 year old boy who would later be killed aged 19 just 3 weeks before the WWI armistace) to occupations we’re ever so glad to have lost (‘ivory turner’ and ‘fur cutter’).
Having covered a street of houses, I was commissioned in 2012 by Enfield Council to create a trail of window plaques for a long street of shops in Edmonton, whose emphasis naturally focussed on making and selling goods and services. And ever since, I’ve been taking orders for single plaques around the country, as word spreads outside E17, as window stickers or giclée art prints.
“I've designed over 500 plaques so far"
Although I’ve put together a couple of Waltham Forest themed compilations for special events, one on art and design and another on food and drink, the plaques I’m researching and producing nowadays are mostly commissioned by interested individuals. The randomness of this process could be problematic in that, if viewed as a whole, the plaques might not represent a community or its particular history - so I try hard to curate who I choose for each plaque. For example, women tended to give up paid work when they got married and so offer fewer opportunities for interesting occupations compared to the men - but there’s still plenty of roles for women and girls I’m able to celebrate. Not only ‘housewife and mother’ and innumerable roles in manufacturing (‘bullet maker’, ‘pencil lead layer’, ‘silk gasser’ and ‘ostrich feather curler’) but creative roles too (‘photographer’, ‘heraldic artist’, ‘fashion catalogue illustrator’ and ‘christmas card designer’) and strong roles ‘wholesale paper dealer’, ‘philanthropic & voluntary occupations’ and roles in WWII, thanks to the 1939 ID card register, eg ‘air raid warden’.
Submitting our personal information to the census has probably always been seen as intrusive and a waste of money, but this scheme wouldn’t exist without it. And I hope I’m capturing the original spirit of the scheme - an Indication of Houses of Historical Interest. A glimpse of the social history all too easily forgotten.