Blackheath is not quite as famous as its near neighbour, Greenwich, despite today sharing a similar atmosphere and community. Curiously however, Blackheath has more blue plaques than the part of London that time itself is named after. Blackheath is in Shakespeare as well. It is, we promise. Henry V, Act V, Prologue: - Chorus “You may imagine [Henry] upon Blackheath; Where that his lords desire him to have borne / His bruised helmet and his bended sword / Before him through the city.” That actually happened as well apparently. On his return from Agincourt, Henry V was met outside London at Blackheath by 20,000 citizens. So yeah, Blackheath matters too. With such a scene happening on Blackheath’s hallowed turf it should come as no surprise that there are nine blue plaques in Blackheath.
Nathaniel Hawthorne – 4 Pond Road
Chances are you probably know of Nathaniel Hawthorne because of his seminal work The Scarlet Letter (1850). Though a published author at the time, Hawthorne was appointed to the position of United States consul in Liverpool in 1853, by President Franklin Pierce. It was in 1856 that he visited London and Blackheath for a few months, and he described his temporary home in his work Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches: “A spot of deepest quiet, within reach of the intensest activity.” Hawthorne describes how it was on Blackheath “this great, bare, dreary common I often went astray […] and I drew the air (tainted with London smoke though it might be) into my lungs by deep inspirations, with a strange and unexpected sense of desert freedom.”
Sir Arthur Eddington – 4 Bennett Park
If there was one thing Sir Arthur Eddington knew how to do, it was how to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was involved in an expedition, with another blue plaque recipient on this list, to observe a solar eclipse in 1919, and this observation was the first confirmation of Einstein’s theory. So good was he at explaining Einstein’s theory that Einstein himself suggested that Eddington’s lecture collection Mathematical Theory of Relativity (1923) was “the finest presentation of the subject in any language."
G.P.O. Film Unit – 47 Bennett Park
Pioneers of documentary film making
The General Post Office Film Unit is a curious blue plaque because it does not commemorate an individual, or anyone in particular, rather a film studio. The G.P.O. Film Unit was set up in 1933 initially to produce documentary films related to the General Post Office, and it produced films like Night Mail (1936), featuring the famous poem by W. H Auden, and London Can Take It! (1940). Their then brand new studios in Blackheath were sound-equipped, and Blackheath itself appeared frequently in their film’s ‘street’ scenes. They would carry on producing films in Blackheath till 1943.
Donald McGill – 5 Bennett Park
The great George Orwell described the works of Donald McGill as possessing an “enthusiastic indecency” because of their furious amounts of double entendre and sexual humour. Having attended Blackheath Preparatory School, McGill spent the vast majority of his life in Blackheath at 5 Bennett Park.
Favouring saucy seaside postcards as his medium, he was attacked by the Conservative government of the 50s for his apparent role in the deterioration of British morals and was fined £50 for the content of his postcards.
James Glaisher – 20 Dartmouth Hill
Posting up on the Lewisham side of Blackheath is James Glaisher, astronomer and owner of what was, and may still be, the finest facial hair south of the Thames. Pairing that astonishing beard with an astonishing mind, Glaisher lived at Blackheath while he was Superintendent of Meteorology at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He used balloons as part of his forecasting method and, proving that meteorology is as full of renegades as you’d think, broke the world record for altitude - but passed out at around 8,800 metres. Apparently he carried on rising and estimates suggest he reached around 10,000 metres above sea-level. That’s about 33,000 feet – just 6,000 short of cruising altitude for commercial airliners. Renegade.
Sir Frank Dyson – 6 Vanbrugh Hill
Continuing the theme of residents of Blackheath looking at the sky and having amazing facial hair is Sir Frank Dyson. Sir Frank, or Frank to his friends, lived in Blackheath between 1894 and 1906 while he was Senior Assistant at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and was involved in the previously mentioned expedition with Sir Arthur Eddington to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Individually he introduced the distribution of the ‘six pips’ which prelude much BBC radio programming. The sound is known as ‘The Greenwich Time Signal’ is now generated by the BBC, having been previously generated at the Royal Observatory.
Charles Gounod – 15 Morden Road
A composer from France, Charles Gounod dashed across the English Channel in 1870 to avoid the Franco-Prussian War, and only stayed in Blackheath from early October until mid-November 1870. Despite being memorialised at Blackheath, he spent most of his time in London at Tavistock House, Bloomsbury, shacked up with singer Georgina Weldon, but that was demolished in 1901 so they had to settle for Blackheath. Ah well. Despite such a short stay he managed to play the organ at All-Saints Church, and the man famous for Ave Maria, Faust, and Romeo et Juliette will always be associated with Blackheath.
William Lindley & Sir William Heerlein Lindley – 74 Shooters Hill Road
Unlike some of the more romantic sorts on these lists, the Lindleys were practical individuals. Their focus was on designing and building water supplies and drainage systems. They were responsible for the design of supply, drainage and sewage systems in cities across the world – including Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Sydney. The elder Lindley pioneered the sand filtration water purification system which was essential in eliminating cholera, while Heerlein Lindley built a 110-mile pipeline over the Caucasus mountain range in 1917. The house was their family home for almost eighty years and the elder Lindley died there in 1900.
Sir James Clark Ross – 2 Eliot Place
Sir James Clark Ross was one of those adventurous people who essentially could not stop going on expeditions. Between 1819 and 1831 he went on numerous Arctic expeditions, finally discovering the location of the north magnetic pole in 1831. Not satisfied with that, he set off south on an Antarctic Expedition in 1839 and discovered the south magnetic pole as well. We’re sure that none of the sights he saw were ever quite as beautiful as the sun rising over Blackheath on a clear day though.
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