Notes from West London · Trivia

Blue plaques, and a life that spanned three centuries

If you have spent any time here in London you will probably be familiar with blue plaques, like this one:


You will find them on buildings connected with people and organizations of note. The example above is on a row of houses close to Barnes Bridge on the south side of the river. It’s very near a plaque that commemorates the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934), which I mentioned in this piece back in 2016.

As you can see, it marks the former home of Dame Ninette de Valois OM, founder of the Royal Ballet. I noticed it for the first time earlier this year and was struck by the fact that her lifetime (1898-2001) spanned three different centuries. Offhand I cannot think of anyone else who has been in the public eye for whom this is true. The Queen Mother came close (1900-2002). If she had been born eight months earlier, she would also have been alive in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Famously long-lived Hollywood comedians Bob Hope and George Burns each died within a few months of their 100th birthdays and each had lifespans covering two centuries: 1903-2003 and 1896-1996 respectively.

One of the criteria for being eligible for a blue plaque is that 20 years must have passed since the person’s death. This was mentioned in a recent edition of “The 100k Drop”, which finished its latest run on 23 August. On 15 August we had the following Beatles-related question:

“Which of these became the first to have an official English Heritage blue plaque on one of their homes?”
John Lennon / Paul McCartney / George Harrison / Ringo Starr

The answer is John Lennon. He is the only Beatle who has been dead for more than 20 years. George Harrison will become eligible in 2021. Paul and Ringo are, happily, still with us. Dame Ninette de Valois died less than 20 years ago, but subjects are also eligible for a blue plaque after the centenary of their birth, as I have learnt from this Wikipedia page. For the record, this page offers a list of “the approximately 940 blue plaques placed by English Heritage and its predecessors” around London. It includes the Gustav Holst plaque at St Paul’s Girls’ School but not the one in Barnes, and there may be other omissions. Dame Ninette de Valois is the only person on the list whose life spanned three centuries. If you know of anyone else of note for whom this is true, please let me know.



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