There are over 30 plaques in Portsmouth that have been attached to buildings across the city. Architect Mark Harris investigates.
The original blue plaques are administered by English Heritage, and were commissioned by the Society of Arts in 1866. From 2000 to 2005 English Heritage extended the blue plaques from London to a select number of provincial cities, including Portsmouth. Emma Gough, press officer for English Heritage, explained “Portsmouth was chosen due to its naval history and its diverse range of historical figures from Rudyard Kipling to Peter Sellers”. Emma also stressed that the importance of the blue plaques was to “highlight the links between people and places that would otherwise go unnoticed”.
Generally, the plaques are awarded posthumously, with the detailed criteria varying for each award body. English Heritage has strong links with the conservation of historical buildings. Their plaques are only eligible for buildings that are still intact from the time of the awardee’s residence. As Portsmouth was severely damaged in World War II, this has limited the number of English Heritage plaques, hence the notable exclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle, although Portsmouth City Council have awarded the author a plaque on the site of his former home in Elm Grove.
English Heritage allows members of the public to make a nomination. Other schemes may rely on lobbying or campaigning, such as the one led by Alderman Terry Hall on behalf of the scientist Hertha Ayrton, who lived in Queen Street and led to a blue plaque being given in 2018. So, if you consider that someone has been historically neglected, there is often a process in place to have them recognised. Although blue plaques are also subject to planning permission for listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas.
Besides the well-known figures, such as Charles Dickens and Peter Sellers there are many plaques that have equally fascinating stories and are often in unexpected and incongruous places. In the meantime, here’s a handful of my favourite plaques. For more information on the awardees, please visit or contact the History Centre at the Central Library.
Fred T. Jane (English Heritage) Military Historian and Artist, 17 Elphinstone Road, Southsea Jane (1865 – 1916) was the founding editor of the annual reference books: All The World’s Fighting Ships and All The World’s Airships. Both books catalogue all the ships operated by each country and are still the primary reference for both subjects. Jane was also involved with local politics and once kidnapped an MP for a political stunt.
George Vicat Cole, Artist, 11 Pembroke Road, Southsea, The famous painter (1833 – 1893) one of the most popular landscape painters of his time, was born in this house. Known for his paintings of the southern counties, Cole became a member of the Royal Academy in 1880. Today his work is widely sought-after. The handsome Georgian townhouse is still largely unchanged from Cole’s tim,e and features a unique Hampshire styled bow window.
Hertha Ayrton (Portsmouth City Council), Scientist, 6 Queen Street, Portsea Ayrton’s plaque was unveiled last year after a public campaign. Her original home was destroyed in WWII and is now occupied by a 1960s apartment block. Born Phoebe Sarah Aryton (1854 – 1923) in Queen Street, and is one of the foremost scientists in history, helping to make key advances in electronics. Ayrton registered 26 patents, and was the first woman to be nominated as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Kathleen Marjorie Henderson, Badminton player, 103 High Street, Old Portsmouth Born and bred in Portsmouth (1905 – 2000), she won the All England Badminton Championships ladies doubles on four occasions (1933 to 1936) and represented England six times. Henderson was also known for her daily swim in the sea at Old Portsmouth. Located opposite the cathedral, the building is a typical non-offensive post-war building with redbrick and mock Georgian features.
Commander Norman Holbrook (English Heritage), 18 Grove Road South, Southsea Holbrook (1888 – 1976) served as a lieutenant, he was the first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross. The award was for his bravery during the Dardanelles Campaign of the First World War, where he sank the strategically important Turkish battleship Mesudiye. Holbrook’s childhood home is a handsome Victorian stucco three storey house that is now part of St John’s College.
Nevil Shute Norway (Portsmouth City Council), Aircraft designer and novelist, 14 Helena Road, Southsea The author and aviator lived at this large Edwardian villa with its mock Tudor features, between 1936 and 1940. Shute (1899 – 1960), originally an aircraft designer, he was responsible for the A100 Airship and Airspeed Courier. Not content with this successful career, he wrote over 20 novels including A Town Like Alice and The Lonely Road, many of his books have been adapted for the screen. Next door to Shute’s plaque at 12a English Heritage awarded a plaque to Commander Edwin Unwin VC (1864 – 1950) for his distinguished naval career and bravery during the First World War.
Percy F. Westerman (Portsmouth City Council), Children’s author, 55 Campbell Road, Southsea Westerman (1876-1959) wrote his first book for his son, John, and would go on to write 174 children’s adventure books. John Westerman also followed in his father’s footsteps as a children’s author. Westerman lived at this handsome Victorian terraced house with its period feature glazed veranda between 1880 and 1900. Another notable Campbell Road resident was Rudyard Kipling, whose childhood home between from 1871 to 1877 can be found at number 4.
Sir Alec Rose (Portsmouth City Council), 38 Osborne Road, Southsea In 1968 Sir Alec Rose (1908 – 1991) became the first person to complete a single-handed voyage around the world when he landed at Southsea beach. His boat, Lively Lady, is now back at Port Solent following a lengthy refurbishment to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the voyage. Earlier this year, a new plaque was unveiled at Rose’s former greengrocer shop and home that he shared with his wife Dorothy. Sir Alec also has a plaque at the Isle of Wight Hovercraft terminal.