Hidden history

This month, Malcolm Ravenscroft, a member of the Bristol Civic Society’s Blue Plaque panel, explains how to have a blue plaque installed for someone or something you feel should be celebrated…

In order for a blue plaque to be approved and installed, your proposal needs to clearly identify what or whom you are wishing to recognise. Has the individual achieved something truly significant? Did they make a notable contribution to the city and the wider community? Is their link to Bristol established? If someone was born here or lived here for a reasonable period, it is a much stronger case than if they just visited for a few days.

Is it clear where the plaque is to be installed? Preferably, it should be attached to the outside of a building, and it should be clearly visible from the roadside. The owner of the building will need to approve the installation.

A standard plaque costs about £700 to be manufactured and installed. This would need to be raised by donations or public subscription. The Civic Society is not able to pay directly for any installation. However, having supported nearly 40 plaques since 2015, we have not yet had one that failed for lack of financial support.

If you feel there is a special individual or event that would meet these broad criteria, please contact the Blue Plaque Panel at the Bristol Civic Society.

Fine examples of blue plaque proposals that were approved by the Bristol Civic Society are detailed below:
In September 2016, a blue plaque was unveiled to commemorate Leonard Heath-Humphrys. Leonard lived in Anglesey during the Second World War and in 1950 became familiar with narrow gauge railways servicing the slate quarries. He was concerned by the deteriorating state of the Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales. He sought support for its survival and called a meeting of interested parties at Tyndalls Park Road in Clifton in September 1951. Thirteen attended and were somewhat surprised to discover that Leonard was a 17-year-old schoolboy.

His remarkable ambition and vision ultimately led to the formation of the Ffestiniog Railway Society and the revival of the heritage railway. It is now the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway with almost 200 years of history and has a turnover of over £5 million annually, contributing more than £15 million to the local economy of North Wales.

British businessman and former owner of the Flying Scotsman, Sir William McAlpine, unveiled the plaque in the presence of the Chair of the Ffestiniog Railway Society and the Chair of the Heritage Railway Group. The plaque depicts a Double Fairlie locomotive in outline – a world emblem of the railway.

A year later, in September 2017, a blue plaque commemorating Dame Katharine Furse was unveiled, celebrating her inspiring but previously unknown life.

The daughter of literary critic and poet John Addington Symonds, Katharine was born in Clifton Hill House in 1875. She joined the British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment, becoming Commandant and leading the first VAD Unit sent to France in 1914. She resigned, frustrated that nurses were not able to introduce reforms that they knew were necessary. Her capabilities were soon recognised by the Navy, who, in 1917, asked her to lead a new women’s naval auxiliary. This became the Women’s Royal Naval service, now better known as the Wrens (WRNS)

In the inter-war years, she set up the World Association of Girl Guides and was Director of its World Bureau. She also achieved great success on the ski slopes on a toboggan and she was a very successful wood carver. The plaque was proposed and sponsored by the Association of Wrens; some 40 of whom attended the unveiling wearing past and present uniforms.

The Civic Society’s 25th plaque was unveiled in June 2019. It adorns the wall of Brandon House on Jacob’s Wells Road and commemorates the site of the Jacob’s Wells Theatre. This was the first purpose-built playhouse in Bristol operating for over 70 years from 1729 to 1799.

When the theatre was built, it was located outside the city boundary. This was a necessary move at a time when Puritan sentiments had all but banned theatrical performances within the city itself.

It was described by Bristol poet Thomas Chatterton as “a mean assembly room absurdly built”. Even so, it attracted residents of all classes including well-to-do visitors to the fashionable Hotwells spa and players and stars of the London stage. The theatre was so small that an actor who left the stage on one side had to walk around the outside of the house to re-enter on the other side. This greatly delighted the regular crowds who gathered on the slope of Brandon Hill.

The plaque was unveiled by Lord Mayor Councillor Jos Clark. Students from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in splendid period costume then treated the gathered crowd to an extract from The Beggar’s Opera – one of the first plays performed on stage at the Jacob’s Wells Theatre.

For more information about Bristol Civic Society, visit: bristolcivicsociety.org.uk