History On The Wall

A packed audience at St Mary's braved the January cold to enjoy a most fascinating talk by Keith Hodgkins from Tipton Civic Society on commemorative wall plaques. With nearly 11,000 nationwide to choose from, Keith's challenging task was to spend an hour or so exploring the very wide range of plaques displayed on our buildings. Keith firstly laid down a few ground rules. Generally speaking, plaques commemorate deceased persons or past events. Don't expect to stand and admire a plaque remembering your good deeds until you're no longer there to enjoy it. Secondly, plaques not only commemorate nationally known persons and events but also remember eminent local persons and local events. Thirdly, they come in all shapes, sizes, colours and designs. Do not assume you are searching solely for the well known circular "blue" plaques.

Our illustrated trip around the country naturally started here in the Midlands, with one erected by Tipton Civic Society to mark the location where Thomas Newcomen constructed and operated the first successful steam pumping engine - the Dudley Castle Engine of 1712. Keith also shared with us the history of Cpl Joseph Davis, a Tipton lad who was awarded the VC for valour at the Battle of the Somme. The Society affixed a plaque to record this event to a local Tipton pub some time ago. Indeed, the underlying theme of Keith's talk was the need to preserve and publish in this way the local history of a settlement so that it was not forgotten. We then travelled to Queen Square, Wolverhampton, to look at the plaque affixed to the Prince Albert statue; thence to Princes Square, where a plaque commemorates the erection of Britain's first set of traffic lights and, finally, to the Sunbeam motor cycle factory to see a plaque reminding us of the company's original roots in Wolverhampton. Then, on to Oldbury, to see a plaque erected to the memory of Jack Judge, sometime owner of a fish and chip stall, who became a music hall entertainer and composer of popular songs. If you still wonder about his claim to fame, you will not be alone. His name is almost forgotten, but his iconic song is still on our lips, for it was he who composed "It's A Long Way to Tipperay". What is interesting to note is that most civic groups erecting plaques seek some element of sponsorship from local organisations.

Keith's talk took in too many plaques to recount in the short space of this article. At Walsall, plaques commemorating Jerome K. Jerome and, on the same Georgian terrace, one commemorating a Zeppelin raid which killed the Mayoress who was travelling on a passing tram. The Chance Bros glassworks are remembered in Smethwick; the restoration of Dudley Canal tunnel has a plaque IN the tunnel itself. Off we went to London, home to 2,694 plaques, for a whistle stop tour which took in some very exquisitely designed examples, including a fascinating one in Wapping to Captain Bligh who lived there from 1785 to 1790; this credits him with the introduction of the bread-fruit plant from Tahiti to the West Indies, yet no mention is made of his better known adventure. We saw plaques with war damage, a further plaque to Jerome K. Jerome (who penned "Three Men in a Boat" at 104 Chelsea Bridge Rd) and further plaques, all in different styles, commemorating Lord Palmerston, W.H. Smith's first head office and those of the Automobile Association.

Venturing into Wales, Keith had spotted a stone tablet sunk into the station platform at Llandrindod Wells, marking the spot where Queen Elizabeth first ventured into Wales after her accession in 1952. A similar pavement based plaque can be found in Wells, commemorating the Olympic long jump record of Mary Rand in 1964. It represents the 22ft 2.25 inches jump which gave her the gold medal. Back in Wales, in a promenade shelter at Tywyn we admired the plaque erected by John Corbett MP to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Breathlessly, we moved on to see record producer Joe (Telstar) Meek's plaque at Newent in Gloucestershire and the plastic plaque on a fish and chip shop window in Tynemouth stating "Jimmy Hendrix bought fish and chips here"! And so we continued onwards, looking at plaques commemorating the D-day landings (at Gosport and Newhaven), the construction of the Whitby colliers that took the first settlers to Australia, Irish plaques in Dublin to those who died in the 1916 uprising, Adam Smith's birthplace plaque in Glasgow, and so back home to Brindley's plaque at Leek, James Watts's in Birmingham, William Murdock's plaque at the Soho Foundry and finally, to the plaque here in Lichfield on Prince Rupert's mound.

Why do we as a nation have this interest in erecting plaques? Perhaps the English have an inbred interest in their history, more especially that of not so well known local persons, who have through varied endeavours enriched the life of their local community and made it all the better for that. Well done Keith for a fascinating talk. Now, what new plaques do we need here in Lichfield? Who are Lichfield's unknown heroes? Suggestions to the Civic Society Committee please.

Finally, if the topic excites you, go to www.openplaques.org where 36,531 are listed.

Roger Hockney
January 2016