Okay, for the record, Crystal Palace is quite an amorphous area. Where Upper Norwood ends and Crystal Palace begins is unclear, and the same goes for Crystal Palace and Gipsy Hill. According to English Heritage, Leslie Howard in this list is in Upper Norwood, and if that’s the case, Crystal Palace basically does not exist as a place. Sydenham is far clearer, but for clarity we’ve only included plaques within the boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark. This list is dominated by Sydenham, which has two household names amongst its list of blue plaques, and that reflects Sydenham’s history as a very affluent town, but Crystal Palace has a couple in its general blob as well.
John Logie Baird – 3 Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham
Commonly known as the inventor of the television, John Logie Baird moved with his family to Sydenham in 1933, and would stay there till 1944. Upon the outbreak of war, his family moved to Cornwall, but John stayed to continue research in a laboratory he had built next to the house. While there he developed systems for stereo sound, colour, and even three-dimensional imagery, but as it was the war, no one paid much attention to his ideas. He was eventually forced to leave due to bomb damage in 1944.
Annie Besant – 39 Colby Road, Crystal Palace (Gipsy Hill)
Annie Besant was something of a force of nature. Annie moved to Gispy Hill in 1874, having left her husband in 1873 because of political disagreements, and the fact that he had the right to take all the money she earned, which he did. After this time she became a member of the National Secular Society, and fought hard for the popularisation of birth control. She would later become involved in the fight for Indian independence and her work would inspire her friend Mahatma Gandhi in leading India to independence. Though she only spent a year in South London, considering it was her first year of freedom in a life that was about to become incredibly full, it was quite the important year.
W. G. Grace – 7 Lawrie Park Road, Sydenham
Some of you may be asking ‘who on earth is this handsome chap holding a bit of wood?’ That man is W. G. Grace. Known across the cricketing world as the original big cheese of cricket – the grand fromage if you will. With a beard that would certainly not be out place today, W. G. Grace (who was also a doctor) was not only the most famous cricketer of Victorian England, he was one of the most famous people full stop. Originally from Gloucestershire, Grace’s career spanned 44 years, and he moved to South London in 1899. During his career he scored a total of 54,211 runs at an average of 39 and took 2,809 wickets at an average of 18. All done with that superb beard, good show sir.
Sir Francis Pettit Smith – 17 Sydenham Hill, Sydenham
Some people with blue plaques just move to the commemorated houses in their retirement, a lot actually. Smith is no different, except he actually built the house. Not satisfied with just moving into any house in his old age, Smith wanted to build his own, and did so in 1864. How was he able to? Well he was one of the inventors of the screw propeller, that thing that drives boats. He then used his development to construct the first screw-propelled steamship, the SS Archimedes in 1839. Clearly he was not satisfied with the house, and moved out in 1870, before dying in 1874.
Sir George Grove – 14 Westwood Hill, Sydenham
Engineer + Musicologist
Sir George Grove was a Clapham boy who moved to Sydenham in 1860 while secretary of The Crystal Palace (the actual big glass building), and despite being an engineer by trade who specialised in lighthouses, Grove is remembered for Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which he compiled while living in Sydenham. It was initially published between 1878 and 1899 and is still used today as the standard reference work. Having been knighted in 1883, he went on to become the first director of the Royal College of Music, retiring in 1894, and dying in 1900, at home in Sydenham.
Eleanor Marx – 7 Jews Walk, Sydenham
Eleanor Marx was the youngest daughter of the hugely famous Karl Marx, and served as his secretary from the age of sixteen. After his death she oversaw the publication of Das Kapital in English in 1867. In her own right she was an accomplished linguist and passionate politician, producing the first English translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and founding the Socialist League in 1885. She moved to Sydenham in 1895, but would take her own life only three years later at the age of only 43.
Sir Ernest Shackleton – 12 Westwood Hill, Sydenham
If we’re going to be honest, Shackleton was off his rocker. Most explorers are. Though born in Ireland to Irish parents, Shackleton’s family moved to Sydenham when he was ten, where he went to Dulwich College, before joining the Merchant Navy at sixteen. Now, Shackleton was apparently enamoured with one Emily Dorman, who lived nearby in a house called ‘The Firs’, and this apparently spurred him on in his quest for fame and fortune, because he was not nearly wealthy enough to ask for her hand. He would eventually marry Emily in 1904, after his first expedition to the Antarctic. Shackleton would achieve heroic status on his third expedition when he was involved in the incredible rescue of his crew from certain death. He and five others sailed 720 miles in a 20ft lifeboat through a hurricane to reach South Georgia Island, after which Shackleton and two others travelled 32 miles in 36 hours with makeshift climbing boots and 50ft of rope before finding help. Obviously it goes without saying that if you are going to the Antarctic this might happen, but props to Shackers for stepping up to the plate.
Leslie Howard – 45 Farquhar Road, Crystal Palace (Upper Norwood)
Film Actor + Director
The absolutely scrumptious Leslie Howard was born Leslie Howard Steiner in Forest Hill, obviously from South London with those looks. He would move to Farquhar Road at the age of eight, via Vienna, naturally. While living there he attended Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, and after military service in the First World War, became an actor. He changed his name in 1920 and travelled to the U.S. where he career would blossom, eventually earning an Oscar nomination in 1938 for his role in ‘Pygmalion’ and then huge box-office success in ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939. He returned to Britain upon the outbreak of the Second World War, where he conducted radio broadcasts encouraging America to join the Allies, and died in 1943 after the plane transporting him from Lisbon to London was shot down.
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