International Women's Day 2018

Why Have These Incredible Women Been Left Out Of The Blue Plaque Scheme?

There's a huge disparity in historical male figures commemorated in British public life compared to pioneering females. ELLE UK speaks to the woman trying to change this.

Dotted around London are blue plaques on various houses and buildings which tell you that a famous person once lived there. You know the ones.

It's always pretty interesting to stop and look at the influential people who have made a mark on society and the surroundings where they may have got their inspiration or ambition from.

However, there's one major problem. A shockingly small number of women have been honoured by the scheme since it started in 1866.


Currently, there are 127 women represented through the plaques, compared with 757 men. While icons like the suffragist Millicent Fawcett and novelist Virginia Woolf have been recognised with blue plaques, there are many more than the current 127 total who have been forgotten.

This alarming imbalance is something that caught the attention of author Allison Vale, who has designated a new book A Woman Lived Here: Alternative Blue Plaques to women in London who have been neglected by the scheme, but certainly shouldn't be.

English Heritage, the body who select who is commemorated with a blue plaque, has recognised the problem, which is a good starting point. In 2016, it launched an appeal urging people to put forward nominations for women, as the scheme relies on nominations from members of the public.

'The plaques also tell us a lot about who we, as a society, consider worthy of recognition. It's only relatively recently that the role of women in history has been acknowledged and the blue plaques scheme partly reflects this historic blindness,' curatorial director at English Heritage Anna Eavis told ELLE UK. 'We're working hard to improve the representation of women on our London blue plaques scheme. But our scheme relies on public nominations so we're calling on people to get in touch and tell us who they think deserves a plaque.'

Vale lists 56 women in her book who she thinks deserves a plaque, outlining reasons why for each and every one of them. All of them are worthy, but let's have a look at just a few of their stories to get just an inkling of the incredible contributions they made and why they deserve all the recognition in the world.

Noor Inayat Khan

A statue of Noor Inayat Khan was unveiled in central London by Princess Anne in 2012

Inayat Khan was a descendant of Indian royalty who became a spy for Britain and the Allies during World War Two. She was the first woman to be sent by Allied forces behind enemy lines as a covert wireless operator. At one point, she was the last Allied wireless operator on French soil, and as many of her fellow resistance fighters were arrested, she 'sustained a remarkable and perilous solo operation for three months,' according to Vale. She is also credited with delivering vital funds and equipment to the resistance and securing the safe passage of 30 soldiers back home.

Sadly, she was eventually captured by the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, where she refused to pass on any information. She was sent to Germany for a further 10 months of interrogation and torture before being put in a concentration camp in Germany where she was executed by a firing squad. She is the first Muslim woman of World War Two to be awarded the highest civilian bravery award, the George Cross in the UK.

Dorothy Lawrence

War is told to be no place for a woman. But one woman proved them wrong. Dorothy Lawrence (1896-1964) disguised herself as a man in order to experience life on the front lines. In the summer of France 1915, an aspiring Dorothy Lawrence dreamt of showing the world that she could be an investigative journalist. She cycled through the French countryside where editors told her that she had no hope of becoming a war-correspondent. Dorothy persevered and decided to prove them wrong. _________________ While in Paris, Dorothy picked two English troops out of a café. She convinced them to smuggle her a uniform with their washing. Supplied with her second hand jacket, badge, cap, puttees, shirt and boots; Dorothy learnt how to look like a soldier. She bound her breasts and used cotton and sacks to make her shoulders look bulkier. Dorothy gave her pale skin a tan with watered down furniture polish, cut her long hair short and learnt how to drill and to march. She forged military identity papers, using the name Denis Smith, she served for ten days in the British Expeditionary Force Tunneling Company on the Western Front before her true identity was discovered. Military authorities were embarrassed that a girl had been able to infiltrate their army. They treated Dorothy well, though they were initially suspicious that Dorothy was a spy. The army tried to get information out of Dorothy, but they failed and placed her in a convent temporarily. Because the military were concerned other women would try to copy Dorothy, they made Dorothy swear not to write about her experience. _________________ -A Thank you @m0derskipet for telling me about this amazing woman!

A post shared by The women of the past. (@ladies_of_history) on


Lawrence (1896-1964) was an ambitious journalist already harbouring a horrific back story including the death of both her parents at a young age and being raped by someone in her church. When the First World War broke out, she aimed to report from the front line so disguised herself as a male soldier. After a few weeks on the Western Front, she came clean and was almost charged by Scotland Yard. She later suffered PTSD, both from what she saw on the battlefield and her experiences of sexual assault but was let down by doctors. She was incarcerated to a mental asylum for the remaining 40 years of her life.

'Her drive and energy takes my breath away and makes you realise what a terribly lonely place it is, to be a trail-blazer,' Vale tells ELLE UK. 'And as it turned out, for Dorothy the cost was unthinkable: forty years of her life, languishing in a mental asylum, her post-traumatic stress dismissed as hysteria; her abuse at the hands of a senior member of the Church shouted down as the crazed ramblings of a woman out-of-control.'

Angela Burdett-Coutts

Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1871

A member of the Coutts banking family tree, Angela (1814-1906) became the wealthiest woman in England at the age of 23 and therefore the country's most eligible single woman. However, she defied the expectations of society, declining many marriage proposals in her path, and instead used put her bountiful fortune to good causes. She helped the homeless, poor and illiterate children in London's slums, built safe low-rent houses, helped financed what would become the NSPCC and Battersea Cats and Dogs Home. She also built the Columbia Road market in east London so trade could be opened in the area.

'She funded and championed state-of-the-art urban planning and housing projects and was the first person to conceive of the idea of children's parks to enable slum children to have a safe, green space to play,' Vale says. 'Her vision, passion and creativity were boundless and her generosity legendary.'

At the age of 67 she finally married a 27-year-old man, who took her name. When she died in 1907, 30,000 Londoners attended the funeral and called her the 'Queen of the poor'.

Una Marson

Born in Jamaica, Marson - who lived from 1905-65 - came to London in 1932. She was already a published poet, journalist and playwright in her home country and, unfortunately, when arriving in London was subject to horrific racism. She wrote about these experiences and soon started campaigning for racial and gender equality in the UK capital.

In 1941, she became the first black woman to be employed at the BBC, a year later she made history once more when she was the first black woman broadcaster launching a programme called Caribbean Voices. This was especially significant as the national broadcaster was pretty much exclusive to solely sounding out white, male, upper class voices on its airwaves. Marson is still yet to have an English Heritage plaque but does have one from Southwark council.

'Marson used her power with the written word to celebrate the Caribbean voice, to champion Caribbean culture and to spotlight the racism faced by black Londoners in every field,' Vale says.

Elsie Widdowson

Elsie Widdowson with professors H.O.F Verzar (centre) and Robert McCance (L)

Considering we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the field of science, it makes the achievements of Widdowson in the 1940s all the more incredible. Born in 1906, Widdowson became one of Imperial College, London's first female graduates before going on to gain a PhD in biochemistry.

She became a dietician and her work was used by the Ministry of Food as a basis for their rationing programme for people in the UK during World War Two. She was later consulted for the nutritional support of survivors of concentration camps and the improvement of formula milk for post-war babies.

A Woman Lived Here by Allison Vale is published by Robinson (£12.99) and is out now.

More from ELLE UK: