You'd think that there's no arguing with an official plaque. Memorials are meant to be dignified, factual reminders of our history. Yet London contains many examples of slack plaques — commemorations with typos or mistaken dates, or else placed on the wrong building. In this adapted excerpt from his book, Everything You Know About London is Wrong, Londonist's Editor-at-Large Matt Brown rounds up some of the worst offenders.
A very important plaque can be found at the former Nevil Arms public house on Osterley Road, Hackney. This records the first bomb dropped on London in the first world war, and therefore the first foreign military attack on London since medieval times. It is out by half a mile. The zeppelin bombing raid began further north in Stoke Newington, when an incendiary landed on the roof of 16 Alkham Road. That house still stands, and a better-informed plaque, shown above, was erected on the 100th anniversary in May 2015. The two plaques also disagree on the date. The earlier attempt reckons 30 May, while the updated plaque plumps for 31 May — presumably as the raid started close to midnight. Several other examples of mistaken locations are given in the book.
Another mistaken 'first' can be found in Harrow-on-the-Hill. Here, a prominently placed plaque remembers the 'first recorded motor accident in Great Britain involving the death of the driver'. The crash occurred on Grove Hill on 25 February 1899. A party of military types was out on an experimental motoring run up and down Harrow Hill. They reached the top without incident, but quickly hit trouble on the downward journey. According to a local press report, 'While the car was going down Grove Hill at a high speed the front wheel collapsed, and the occupants were violently thrown out.' The driver, Edwin Root Sewell (31), died instantly. A passenger called Major Ritche died later from a fractured skull and a further four passengers received minor injuries.
A tragic early motoring accident, for sure – but not the first. That unenviable record goes to Henry Lindfield of Brighton. Almost exactly a year before the Harrow accident, Mr Lindfield lost control of his motor waggonette during a drive through Purley, near Croydon. His vehicle ran through a wire fence and hit a tree, fatally injuring the driver. No plaque marks the site.
Until recently, a brown plaque on the southern end of London Bridge noted the presence of Nancy's Steps. This short flight, leading down to Southwark Cathedral, has a feel of olden days, for the steps are too narrow to have been created in modern times. According to the missing plaque, 'The steps were the scene of the murder of Nancy in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist.' They are often referred to as 'Nancy's Steps' today, despite the absence of signage.
It is peculiar that such a notorious and violent scene could be misremembered, but the murder did not take place on the bridge or the steps. The scene occurs in Chapter 47. Bill Sikes believes that his prostitute lover Nancy has betrayed him. He dashes home with 'savage resolution' to find Nancy lying on their bed. It is in their shared room, not on the bridge, that he strikes her dead with a heavy club.
On Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, one finds a Greater London Council blue plaque to 'Thomas de Quincy', which should read 'de Quincey'. Perhaps it's fitting that one of the 19th century's most noted drug users, and the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, should be lacking an 'e'.
Across town, George Moore's home on Ebury Street received a blue plaque in 1936. It lasted less than a year before The Spectator pointed out that his birthdate was wrong — 1851 instead of 1852. It was soon corrected.
Even today, the authorities make a surprising number of errors. In 2015, the Borough of Hillingdon erected a sign misspelling its neighbouring authority as 'Hownslow' rather than 'Hounslow'. In the same year, the London Overground station of Theobalds Grove was signed as 'Theobolds Grove', while Walthamstow became 'Waltamstow'. Meanwhile, a nearby cycle path was decorated with signs to 'Walthamsow'. The prize for the dumbest mistake must, however, go to the Royal Parks. Its 2012 viewfinder plaque at the top of Primrose Hill mislabelled the elegant Caledonian clock tower as 'Holloway Prison'.
And now for something completely different...
The most entertaining ‘wrong plaque’ of them all can be found in the courtyard of Shakespeare's Globe. Here, the floor is covered with the chiselled names of the many donors to the theatre. Among them is a certain 'Michael Pallin'. The misspelling is apparently intentional. The flagstone was bought by fellow Python John Cleese, who mischievously requested that his friend should be immortalised as 'Pallin' rather than 'Palin', the correct version. We've never had this one officially verified, but the Globe's own tour guides habitually repeat it.
This article is adapted from Everything You Know About London Is Wrong, a mythbusting guide to London by Londonist's Editor-at-Large Matt Brown. Available now from Batsford. Photos by the author, not from the book.