London’s blue plaques scheme is now run by English Heritage. It was founded in 1866 by the (Royal) Society of Arts, and subsequently taken over by the London County Council (L.C.C.) and then the Greater London council (G.L.C.).
This is the “official” scheme for London but anyone can put a plaque, blue or otherwise, commemorating anyone on any building subject to any necessary permissions such as listed building consent. All the official ones are listed on English Heritage’s website but there is no central register of the unofficial plaques.
We aim to list all the plaques in and around Brixton, official or not, with a few notes of our own about them.
Lilian Baylis (1874–1937)
This plaque is on 27 Stockwell Park Road, Stockwell, SW9 0AP, the house where Lilian Baylis died following a heart attack. The plaque says she was the manager of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres; true, but far from the whole story.
Following a basic education and a period as an émigré in South Africa, ended by a bout of illness, in 1898 Lilian fetched up in London to assist her aunt who was running what is now the Old Vic theatre. With her aunt’s death in 1912, she became manager. She modernised the running of the theatre and, in the 1920s, raised the funds and managed the separation of Morley College which had originally been established as an educational arm of the theatre. She also raised funds to re-establish the derelict Sadler’s Wells theatre. By the 1930s there were three “Vic-Wells” companies (opera, theatre and ballet) working in the two venues. Subsequently, the opera company became the basis of the ENO (English National Opera), Sadler’s Wells specialised in dance, and the Old Vic in theatre.
Lilian Baylis did not achieve all this by being nice to people; she was infamously brusque, had a fierce temper, and had rows with colleagues.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/30648
Alderman Sidney Bolsom (c.1897 – 1947)
Being a famous, great achiever is not the only way to get your name emblazoned on a wall for all to see, as this plaque above the doors to the flats at No. 26 Hillyard Street shows.
Many obscure local politicians appear on foundation stones and similar plaques. Sidney Bolsom was a member, then alderman and, finally, Mayor of the St Pancras Borough Council. He was also elected to the London County Council and was a prominent member of the Golders Green Synagogue.
Perhaps such an upstanding member of the community does deserve to be better remembered.
Carlton Mansions Housing Co-operative (1979–2014)
This plaque is on Carlton Mansions, 387 Coldharbour Lane SW9 8QD.
Carlton Mansions was built in 1891 next to the railway line and is owned by Lambeth Council. It (and the mural on the side wall, Nuclear Dawn (q.v.)) are locally listed by Lambeth Council. The building is described as a: “Late 19th Century mansion block in Queen Anne Style”. The plaque commemorates the 35 years that the mansions were occupied by a housing co-operative which saved the building from complete dereliction and, probably, demolition. The co-op was evicted in 2014 to allow the building to be redeveloped as part of a wider, local scheme. However there are only signs of any work actually starting on the redevelopment now, in March 2018.
Charlie Chaplin (1889 - 1977)
This blue plaque is on 15 Glenshaw Mansions, Brixton Road, London SW9 0DS. It was unveiled by comedian and silent film buff Paul Merton. Chaplin lived at this address with his brother Sydney between 1908 and 1910.
Chaplin in the rôle of the Tramp must be one of the most recognisable film characters in the world and vast amounts have been written about him, including an autobiography. It seems sufficient to add here that Chaplin’s other connection to the area was that he spent some time in the Lambeth Workhouse. Appropriately, the Cinema Museum is now housed in one of the remaining workhouse buildings.
David Cox (1783 – 1859)
This blue plaque is on 34 Foxley Road, Camberwell, SW9 6ES.
David Cox is chiefly remembered as a landscape artist, particularly in watercolour. He began his career as a theatre scene painter before becoming a prolific artist. Although he regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy he was never able to sell his works for high prices and so made up his income by teaching drawing.
Born in Birmingham (where there is another plaque to him), he lived there, in Hereford, and in London at different periods of his life. He was at the Foxley Road address 1827-1841.
The building has recently (2017) been renovated. It is a pity that the opportunity was not taken to tidy up the cables away from the plaque.
Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-939)
This plaque is on the wall of 14 Dover Mansions, Canterbury Crescent, Brixton, SW9 7QF and describes Ellis as a “pioneer in the scientific study of sex”.
He regarded as his crowning achievement a six-volume series of books: Studies in the Psychology of Sex, the first of which was Sexual Inversion (1897) and the last Sex in Relation to Society (1910). These were not his only works by any means but the first volume of this serious must be his most famous. “Inversion” was his preferred term for homosexuality and publishing a sober and sympathetic account of the subject in the era when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for it alone deserves a blue plaque. Needless to say, a bookseller was successfully prosecuted for selling the “lewd, wicked, bawdy, scandalous” book, which effectively banned it.
To describe his life as “colourful” would be an understatement. A most unusual upbringing led to an unsettled (both geographically and in terms of attachments) adult life.
Further reading: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33009
Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955– 1989)
This small plaque is on 151 Railton Road, SE24 0LT.
Born in Lagos, Rotimi came to England as a refugee from the Nigerian civil war in 1966. The son of a Yoruba chief, he had a private education in England followed by graduate and postgraduate studies in the USA. Returning to England in 1983, his work as a photographer explored sexism (he was gay), racism, mortality, and his Yoruban heritage.
His career was curtailed by his early death but there has been a reawakening of interest in his work recently. There was a major retrospective in the Iziko Museum in South Africa in 2014; a show at the Palitz Gallery, New York in 2016; and a Radio 4 programme about his legacy in 2018.
Cherry Dorothy Groce (1948–2011)
This plaque is on the wall of 22 Normandy Road, SW9 6JH, where Dorothy “Cherry” Groce was living in 1985. On the morning of 28 September 1985, police raided the house looking for her son Michael. At least one of the officers was armed and managed to shoot Mrs Groce. The bullet passed through a lung and then her spine, leaving her paralysed from the waist down.
After she died in 2011 from kidney failure brought on by an infection, an inquest determined that her death “was contributed to by failures in the planning and implementation of the raid”. The police, at last, gave a proper apology for their failings. As well as the tragedy for Mrs Groce and her family, the incident sparked two days of rioting in the district.
William Higgs (1824–1883)
This plaque is on Brixton Baptist Church, 80 Solon Road, SW2 5UY.
Higgs was a prominent Lambeth builder. His major works include St Thomas's Hospital. His relationship with the famous preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon was based, not only on shared beliefs, but in the work he did for him. He built a house for Spurgeon and the new Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newington Butts (the front of which survives; the rest of the building having been rebuilt after WWII bomb damage) in which Spurgeon preached. He was co-founder with Spurgeon and - for many years - treasurer of the Stockwell Orphanage
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/48626
C.L.R. James (1901-1989)
These plaques are on 165 Railton Road, Brixton, SE24 0JX, although being on the side wall of the building, they are actually in Shakespeare Road. The English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled in 2004 but the much smaller plaque, simply naming him, has been there much longer.
Cyril Lionel Robert James was born in Trinidad, the son of a schoolmaster and a mother who loved English literature. By 1932 he had established enough of a reputation as a writer to be invited to England to help the great West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine (knighted 1962, life peer 1969) to write his autobiography*. In the troubled 1930s, James became politically active adopting a Trotskyist position. He published his most famous book, on the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, in 1938. The start of the Second World War found him in America where he was to stay for the next 15 years. His radical activism ended with his internment in 1952 and in 1953 he returned to England. He travelled extensively (including a spell in Trinidad 1958-62) and wrote prolifically about both politics and cricket until finally living in Railton Road in 1981 in a flat above the offices of Race Today magazine. Here, in his 80s, the world now came to him.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/59637
*Cricket and I by Learie Constantine, published Philip Allan 1933
Fred Karno (1866-1941)
This plaque is on 38 Southwell Road, SE5 9PG.
Fred Karno’s birth name was Frederick John Westcott. He first achieved fame as a slapstick comedian but what really made his name survive was his creation of the Fred Karno Company of performers. This left two legacies:
- the nickname of the company, Fred Karno’s Army, entered the English lexicon as a synonym for any chaotic organisation; and
- the company spawned many of the most famous comedians of the first part of the twentieth century including Charlie Chaplin , Stan Laurel, Will Hay and Max Miller.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37623
Dan Leno [George Wild Galvin] (1860–1904)
This blue plaque is on 56 Akerman Road, Camberwell, SW9 6SN.
George Wild Galvin (he did not adopt his stage name, Dan Leno, until1884) was born in 1860 to music hall performers. He was first taken on stage at the age of four and the pattern of his life was set. He received little education as he was always touring. One speciality he developed was clog dancing at which he became so good that he won the world championship at Leeds in 1880.
As Dan Leno he began appearing in London from 1884. He quickly became famous for creating comic characters rather than telling jokes and regularly appeared in panto as dame.
Sadly, heavy drinking – and worse – took its toll. He died in 1904 from tertiary syphilis.
Olive Morris (1952-1979)
This plaque is in, what was, the staff entrance of Olive Morris House, 18 Brixton Hill, SW2 1RL. The building is now (July 2018) closed to the public and due to be redeveloped.
Oliver Morris was born in Jamaica in 1952. She moved to England with her family when 9 years old. She died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1979 at just 27 years of age. What she achieved in so short a life was remarkable.
She was a feminist, black nationalist and squatters’ rights campaigner. She was a founder member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent and the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Although she left school with no qualifications, she also managed to fit in getting a degree in social sciences from Manchester University.
This image is etched into one of the front windows of Olive Morris House and so, unlike the plaque, is visible from the street frontage.
Rudy Narayan (1938-1998)
This plaque is on 413 Brixton Road, SW9 7DG (above the San Marino café).
Rahasya Rudra (Rudy) Narayan was a barrister and civil rights activist who was born in British Guiana (now independent Guyana). He came to the UK in 1953, did a spell in the army, and then trained as a barrister, qualifying in 1968. He did much to expose the racism in the legal system. He co-founded the Afro-Asian and Caribbean Lawyers Association (now the Society of Black Lawyers). His agitation led to the Bar Council forming a race relations committee and to an amendment of the Race Relations Act 1976 to prohibit race discrimination in the profession. In his practice he won many high-profile cases including ones as a result of the Bristol riots of 1980. He was the first chair of the Lambeth Law Centre.
Sadly, he began to drink heavily and behave erratically, giving ammunition to enemies who preferred to blame the whistle blower for bringing them into disrepute rather that addressing the underlying disreputable issues. In 1994 he was disbarred for unprofessional conduct and in 1998 he died from cirrhosis of the liver.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/70128
Nuclear Dawn (1981 – 2011)
These plaques are on the side wall of Carlton Mansions, 387 Coldharbour Lane SW9 8QD next to the mural, Nuclear Dawn (q.v.).
Bernard Henry Oliver (b.1936)
This plaque is on 8 Kimberley Road, SW9 9DG
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings is the oldest preservation society in the country, being founded by William Morris in 1877. However the, so-called, Society for the Promotion of Historic Buildings, who are named as the promotors of this plaque, are certainly not. In fact, the Londonist website calls them fictitious. It also records one of their most famous plaques to one, Carswell Prentice (non-existent) inventor of the supermarket trolley (not true). On the other hand, they have installed a plaque to Vivian Stanshall (late lead singer of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, etc.) whose many fans no doubt feel he deserves a plaque. So, you pays your money and takes your choice.
We are certainly not ones to be judgemental. After all, the David Bowie “plaque” at the top of this page is a complete fake, only existing as an image created on our computer.
Pete Robinson (1888-1921)
This plaque, on the front of 8 Crewsdon Road, SW9 0LJ, was installed by the Nubian Jak Community Trust on 18 July 2013.
Pete Robinson was the drummer with the American, Southern Syncopated Orchestra. The orchestra started touring in Britain in 1919 and had such a great success that they performed before King George V at Buckingham palace later that year. Sadly, Robinson was not to enjoy his success for long. In 1921, the orchestra was sailing on the SS Rowan from Glasgow to Derry to continue its tour of Britain when it was stuck by two other ships in an accident and eight members of the band were drowned, including Robinson. His body was recovered after the sinking and was buried in an unmarked grave in Tooting Cemetery.
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)
This plaque was installed in Romero Close, off Stockwell Road, by CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) which used to occupy some of the adjacent shops. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was shot dead while celebrating Mass on 24th March 1980. He was a leading light of South American “Liberation Theology” which focuses on the poor; and explains why CAFOD call him a martyr and the military dictatorship that ran El Salvador in 1980 saw him as a threat.
The Archbishop was canonised - had sainthood conferred on him - by Pope Francis on 14 October 2018.
Soul II Soul (1991)
This plaque is on Electric Brixton, Town Hall Parade SW2 1RJ. It is a Performing Rights Society for Music Heritage Award. This is a nationwide scheme run by the PRS for Music to celebrate the first performances of famous bands. It began in 2009 with an award to Blur.
Soul II Soul are still performing. They played on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on New Year's Eve 2017.
Violette Szabo, G.C. (1921-1945)
The blue plaque is on 18 Burnley Road, Stockwell, SW9 0SJ
The green plaque is on the deep-level air raid shelter next to the Stockwell War Memorial opposite Stockwell Terrace, SW9 0QD
Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (née Bushell) was born in Paris of a French dressmaker mother and a British soldier father. As a result, she spoke fluent French. The family settled in Stockwell in 1932. In 1940 she married Étienne Michel René Szabo who was French, of Hungarian descent. Michael was killed in battle in North Africa in 1942. The next year Violette joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). In 1944 she was twice parachuted into France; on the second occasion she was caught by the Germans. Interrogated and sent to concentrations camps, in early 1945 she was executed. The French awarded her the Croix de Guerre and the British, the George Cross.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/38046
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
This blue plaque is on 87 Hackford Road, South Lambeth, London SW9 0RE.
Surely now one of the most famous painters in the world, when Vincent Van Gogh arrived in London in 1873 it was not as an artist but as the young representative of a French-owned firm of art dealers, Goupil & Cie who had a gallery in The Hague. Nevertheless, during his short stay, he did make a drawing of Hackford Road which was only discovered in 1973. One recorded event of his stay was his infatuation with his landlady’s daughter. Her rejection of him may have been a trigger for depression and the mental instability which was to plague the rest of his life. The rest, as they say, is history.
Julian Wall (1979–1989)
This plaque is on Carlton Mansions, 387 Coldharbour Lane SW9 8QD.
This plaque commemorates one of the residents of the Carton Mansions Housing Co-operative in its early years. “Who was Julian Wall?” was a question posed on the Londonist website and answered by another former tenant: “Julian Wall was a founder member of Carlton Mansions Housing co-operative. He helped a lot of people in Brixton in the 70's and 80's with housing stuff. He knew a lot about objects from being a totter. He had a great sense of humour and was a much loved member of our community - so 25 years after his death we are finally being evicted - he would be horrified at that!”
Max Wall (1908-1990)
This plaque is in Mowll Street by the side entrance to Glenshaw Mansions, Brixton Road, where Max Wall was born at number 37 on 12th March 1908. Under his birth name of Maxwell George Lorimer he is to be found in the 1911 census at the age of 3 at 239 Brixton Road with his mother, her younger sister, a housekeeper and her husband. Perhaps his father was away on the census day as he was a music-hall entertainer. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the rather chaotic personal life Max was to lead.
His parents split up and his father, John Gillespie (Jack) Lorimer, died at Somerleyton Road in 1920 when Max was just 12. At the age of 14, after a disjointed education, he began his own stage career which was so successful that by 1930 he performed in a royal variety performance. After a short spell in the RAF in the war, he resumed his career which included films and television. As variety died, his star waned but it picked up again as he appeared in “legitimate” theatre including Waiting for Godot in 1980, by which time he was almost a cult figure.
He had three marriages, each ending in dissolution and, after spending his declining years as a recluse, he died in 1990 after fracturing his skull in a fall.
Norma Elaine Williamson (1947-2015)
This small plaque is on a planter outside the Tate Library, Brixton, Brixton Oval, SW2 1JQ on the corner of Rushcroft Road.
Norma Williamson came to London from Jamaica as a young girl. She lived, initially with her mother, in Stockwell which was to be her home for the rest of her life.
She had a variety of interesting careers, the final one being in the health service which ended when she retired as Director of Human Resources (HR) at The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
She is remembered locally for the amount of voluntary work she did, especially with Age UK and the Brixton Society of which she was treasurer for some 16 years. The Brixton Society installed the planter with its plaque and her friends continue to maintain it in memoriam.