Musing on Sunderland's blue plaques, and those they honour

Like George VI, I was born on an estate. The late monarch's birth estate was Sandringham.

Tuesday, 3rd September 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 3rd September 2019, 6:36 pm
The blue plaque honouring sisters Ida and Louise Cook, who saved many Jews from Nazi persecution.

Mine was Ford. Falmouth Road to be precise and if you're interested (which seems a distant likelihood). The advantage of this, not being born in a hospital, is that it increases your chances of one day receiving a Sunderland blue plaque.

According to the council's website, there are approximately 78 blue plaques in Sunderland. Permission from the council is not strictly necessary to erect one, which may account for the imprecise total. But it is advisable to seek guidance before trying for one.

Dr Marion Phillips, Sunderland's first female MP and latest recipient of a blue plaque.

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Blue plaques are awarded to people, events and buildings under criteria set by English Heritage. The two main criteria for a person are that; they should have made a significant contribution to Sunderland or be eminent through their profession (so no riff-raff); and must have been dead for at least 10 years.

Most of us fail miserably on the first qualification and are keen to avoid the second.

Events to be commemorated should have occurred at least 20 years ago, be recognisable to most people and have significance to the city.

Locations or buildings should be "known locally or nationally as of especial significance and worthy of lasting recognition" and have some visible remains intact.

Dr Sarah Hellawell, who has successfully campaigned for a blue plaque to Dr Marion Phillips, Sunderland's first woman MP.

Each plaque costs around £350, although they may be funded by the Lottery or given a Community Chest grant. This, along with the other stipulations, helps prevent yahoos from making flippant and spurious applications for plaques; commemorating where they once swatted a bluebottle, or first won on the horses, etc.

Reading the plaques themselves is absolutely fascinating and wonderfully enlightening. Indeed, it would take a special kind of dullard to fail to be fascinated and enlightened. All 78 or so can be read online. But it's best to get out there and read them in the flesh, as it were.

Although for obvious reasons they only skim the surface of what they commemorate, they still reinforce the amount of history and heritage Sunderland possesses, much of which you might feel you ought to know better. I know I do.

For example, do you know who Gertrude Bell was? She helped partition Iraq and there's a plaque at her birthplace on The Avenue in Washington.

How about sisters Ida and Louise Cook? Their plaque near the Chesters pub gives brief, but intriguing details of their work saving Jews from Nazi persecution.

On John Street is a plaque for John Murray, an incredible engineer who in 1841 moved a lighthouse 145 metres uphill - then back again.

Nine different plaques pertain to Sunderland AFC. Another tells us why Strawberry Bank in Tunstall is so-called. The plaque at Fatfield Colliery marks the loss of 69 lives there in a 1708 explosion.

And so on. We've all seen blue plaques. But they are worth more of our time than most of us give them.

Have a proper look. You won't regret it.