There are over 100 commemorative plaques in Bath and they document some of the notable men and women who once lived in the city, says Betty Suchar, chair of management of The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

Bath has always attracted the great names of their day. And it was not just the Romans, Ralph Allen, Thomas Gainsborough and Jane Austen who called Bath their home, but a whole host of artists, celebrities, writers, scientists and inventors, some mainstream, some lesser-known. Fortunately, there is a system that commemorates many of the famous residents of Bath with bronze and other styles of plaques decorating the buildings in the city.

The story began on 18 February 1898 when councillor Thomas Sturge Cotterell proposed erecting mural tablets – as they were originally called – on houses once occupied by notable men and women of the 18th and 19th centuries. Samuel Reay, a Bath architect, designed and produced free of charge a sample tablet in sympathy with the 18th-century architecture of the day. On 1 March 1899, Sturge Cotterell (1865–1950) submitted his report, which included an initial list of 44 names of ‘historic interest and importance’ to Bath Town Council. The council adopted the report and voted the requested funding of £250 (equivalent to some £32,000 today).

Sturge Cotterell – who later became mayor and alderman – did much to promote the city of Bath. He believed that places of resort needed to attract visitors and that the mural tablets would bring Bath’s historic houses to local, national and international attention. It was decided that nothing other than the person’s name, the period of residence or the dates of birth and death should be inscribed on the plaque, as “it was not to be presumed that the citizens and visitors would be ignorant of the life and history of the person so honoured.”

Sturge Cotterell reported to the council in 1914 that the scheme to promote the city had succeeded. Bath’s status was raised considerably, he contended, not only because of the honoured residents but also due to the arrival of famous celebrities to perform the unveilings. He maintained that in the past
15 years the city of Bath had received more publicity than in the previous 50 as the scheme had indeed brought national and international recognition.

Familiar and famous

Bath is extraordinarily rich in terms of the number of famous people who have lived in, worked in or visited the city. Sir William Herschel, renowned for discovering the planet Uranus in 1781, was the first person to be honoured. His tablet was unveiled at 19 King Street on 22 April 1899 by Sir Robert Ball, the director of the Cambridge Observatory at the University of Cambridge. This inaugural event was so successful that the original plan, simply to put further tablets in place without ceremony, was revised so that many subsequent tablets were unveiled by distinguished persons. Over the next 14 years a further 33 tablets were installed, 26 with much ceremony.

One of the earlier tablets was one for Jane Austen, unveiled in September 1899 at 4 Sydney Place. In April 1904, the unveiling by the Earl of Selbourne, First Lord of the Admiralty, to honour Lord Nelson at 2 Pierrepont Street drew a particularly large audience. Nelson had come to Bath in 1781 to take the cure to help with his recovery from malaria, the first of many health cure visits to the city. The unveiling was a ticketed affair, complete with Mr Bossi of the Pump Room orchestra playing The Death of Nelson. In October 1908, another large gathering attended the first ever official visit to Bath by an American ambassador, Whitelow Reid, to unveil the tablet at 11 North Parade to Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish statesman. Appropriately, in October 1922, renowned actress Ellen Terry unveiled the tablet to the revered 18 and 19th-century actress Sarah Siddons at 33 The Paragon.

Not so well known

A few of the plaques celebrate names that are not so familiar today. One of these commemorates Major John Andrew at 22 The Circus. Andrew was a British intelligence officer who was hanged as a spy during the American Revolution for his involvement with the American traitor Benedict Arnold. George Washington described Andrew as “a gallant officer”, and there is a monument in his honour on the site of his execution in New York. He also has a monument in Westminster Abbey where his remains were reburied.

A plaque to a less-remembered figure today was to Sir Barlie Frere, a 19th-century British colonial administrator, and can be found at 8 Norfolk Buildings. He spent most of his career in India, working to preserve its religion and heritage. He was also a leading opponent of slavery.

There are 67 plaques either in the style of, or very close to, the original design. Just ten commemorate women, with the most recent, celebrating the artist and explorer Adela Breton, being unveiled at 15 Camden Crescent on 19 July 2016. There are also over 40 plaques that have been introduced over the years by different organisations, following a variety of designs. At least 14 of these are dedicated to distinguished residents, and at least another 30 to buildings, places and historical events.

What’s next?

Bath’s World Heritage Site Advisory Board now plans to reenergise the heritage plaque scheme. The aim is to make the selection of individuals more balanced and diverse, and position new plaques at a deliberate rate of one or two a year.

It is hoped to continue the tradition of unveiling events to heighten awareness of the project and of the honoured persons. Professor Barry Gilbertson, Chair of the Advisory Board, has said: “The vision is that Bath will continue to be recognised as a city that values, respects and promotes its heritage of famous residents, extending Sturge Cotterell’s legacy into today’s world for the benefit of future generations of our residents and visitors alike.”

The blue plaques of Bath

Dr William Oliver (1695–1764), one of the co-founders of the Royal Mineral Water Hospital and the inventor of the low-calorie Oliver biscuit, has a plaque on the site of his residence in the 18th century. It is attached to the building at 18 Queen Square, one of three 19th-century houses and now occupied by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI). The plaque was unveiled in October 1935 by Dr Poynton, a former consulting physician in London at the University College Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children.

The plaque to Admiral Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) at 19 Bennett Street was unveiled in 1899. As a Royal Naval captain, Phillip commanded the first fleet of ships transporting the first convicts to Australia. He landed at Port Jackson on 26 January 1788 and became the first governor of New South Wales. He retired to Bath in 1805 and died in 1814. The modern memorial to Phillip was unveiled in 2014 behind the Assembly Rooms.

The plaques to two famous Romantic poets – William Wordsworth (1770–1850) at 9 North Parade and Robert Southey (1774–1843) at 8 Westgate Buildings – were unveiled on the same day in 1914 by Dr Warner, the president of Magdelen College, Oxford. Wordsworth spent six weeks in Bath in 1841, during which time he attended the wedding of his only daughter, Dora, at St. James’ Church in Frome Road. When he was young, Southey stayed in Bath with his aunt, a Miss Tyler, who lived at 108 Walcot Street. She often took young Robert to the old Theatre Royal on Orchard Street.

Adela Breton (1849–1923) was an archaeological artist and explorer. She made watercolour copies of the wall paintings of Mexican temples, notably those of the Upper Temple of Jaguars at Chichen Itza. Her plaque at 15 Camden Crescent, where she grew up, was unveiled on July 2016.

The plaque for Reverend William Jay (1769–1853), the eminent English congregationalist preacher of Regency England, is located not on his residence but on the Argyle Chapel in Argyle Street, where he served as a minister of 82 years. He was noted as a superb orator. The plaque was unveiled on 11 October 1899 by Reverend Dr Joseph Parker, Minister of the City Temple. Jay was the son of a stonecutter and mason. He was apprenticed to his father in 1783 and worked on the construction of William Beckford’s Fonthill mansion. He came to the Argyle Independent Chapel in 1791, where he stayed until his retirement.

There is a plaque on New Bond Street Place to the cinematography pioneers John Arthur Rowbuck Rudge (1837–1903), a scientific instrument maker, and William Friese-Green (1855–1921), portrait photographer and inventor. They worked together collaboratively, and Rudge invented the Rudge Projector, also known as the Biophantic Lantern. Unusually the plaque shows the name of the donor, Cedric Chivers – he was six times mayor of Bath in the 1920s and owner of the long-established printing firm, Chivers Press.

Elizabeth Linley (1754–1792) was a talented singer of the 18th century.
A great beauty, she was painted by the artist and family friend Thomas Gainsborough. The plaque at 11 Royal Crescent refers to the scandal of her elopement to France in 1772 with the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, rather than her vocal prowess.