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 2016.
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. Number five commemorates Swindon Town manager and football pioneer Sam Allen (the sixth-most longest-serving manager in Football League history), and was unveiled on May 19, 2018, by former Swindon Town footballer John Trollope MBE, and Sam’s granddaughter-in-law, Pat Chapman. Our sixth (and latest) plaque was the first to mark a building rather than a person, and was unveiled at the former headquarters of the GWR Medical Fund, now called the Health Hydro, on June 16, 2018.
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.
Plaque number seven is still being planned, but will commemorate Swindon-born author Ralph Bates, who also played a key role in the Spanish Civil War.
Check out our blue plaques gallery so far (selected images used by kind permission of Calyx Picture Agency)…