Blue plaques can be found in towns and cities across Britain, marking the site of important events in local history, often with national significance, but although you can find various plaques in Swindon related to our heritage (and some of them are even blue) nobody had ever co-ordinated a concerted blue plaque scheme in the town before this year.
Blue plaques usually mark the birthplace of famous and/or important people, or a particular building where the subject lived or even died. But they can also mark the site of an important building – whether lost or still standing – or a location where an important event took place.
Contrary to what is often thought, no central body governs blue plaque schemes (although English Heritage manages them in London) and there are no concrete rules controlling who or what qualifies to have one installed. However, there is a tradition that blue plaques are only installed in honour of people who have passed away, and usually a period of at least 20 years elapses before the person is commemorated.
Late in 2015 we decided that Swindon has many sights deserving of blue plaques, so launched a scheme of our own, and set the example by paying for the first of the plaques, with a plan for subsequent plaques to be financed by crowdfunding.
Choosing the first plaque was easy. When we launched our magazine in spring 2013, we chose Swindon-born suffragette Edith New for our very first front cover. At that time we felt Edith’s extraordinary work had been largely forgotten by the town, and choosing her to be the face of our first first edition was intended as something of a tribute to her. So it seemed logical to afford her a similar honour by marking her birthplace with Swindon’s first blue plaque. The story of how we approached the current owners of the house, which is at 24 North Street, Swindon, and the unveiling of the plaque on March 19, 2016, was told in our Summer 2016 edition.
We organised a joint installation for our second and third plaques, which honour brothers Harold Starr and Norman ‘John’ Starr, who were born at the Central Hotel in Regent Street – a building replaced by The Savoy (originally a cinema, now a pub) in 1937. The brothers’ heroic stories were told in the Summer 2015 and Autumn 2015 editions of the magazine respectively, and the unveiling of their plaques took place on September 8, 2016, which would have been Harold’s 102nd birthday. Our fourth plaque, installed on January 14, 2017, marked the birthplace of film actress Diana Dors, at 61 and 62 Kent Road, Swindon, the former Haven Nursing Home.
Each plaque has to be specially cast in aluminium, then carefully painted, with each one costing around £400. But we are fortunate that Chris Garrett of Swindon-based Dreambox Toy Boxes kindly agrees to do the installation for us, free of charge.
Although we have so far led the choice of blue plaques, the order in which future ones are installed will depend on how much support each one gets, as crowdfunding schemes are launched. The process begins by identifying potential sites and then approaching the owner(s) of the building for their agreement for the plaque to be installed. Because we need this before proceeding, we don’t reveal the subject of the plaque until we have permission. Once it is granted, we will set up a crowdfunding webpage for each plaque, and several may run concurrently.
We are delighted to have finally got a blue plaque scheme for Swindon off the ground. As well as producing a magazine to showcase the stories behind the town’s amazing heritage, we think it is important to have permanent physical reminders of the locations where our history was made. So everyone who has bought or subscribed to the magazine has already helped us, and we hope they will also support the spread of blue plaques in Swindon by donating to the crowdfunding schemes, and helping the list, below, to grow.
In April 2017 we decided to accelerate the installation of plaques by launching crowdfunding pages for not one new one, but three. These will recognise the site of the former headquarters of the GWR Medical Fund and its baths, which was a blueprint for the National Health Service and is now the Health Hydro in Faringdon Road (as featured in our Spring 2017 edition); Swindon-born author Ralph Bates, who played a significant role in the Spanish Civil War, whose story was told in our Winter 2016 edition); and Sam Allen, Swindon Town’s first manager and one of English football’s longest-serving managers, who featured in our Winter 2014 edition. Click here to find out more, including how you can donate.
Check out our blue plaques gallery so far (selected images used by kind permission of Calyx Picture Agency)…