Exploring London’s Blue Plaques and their connection with aviation

Charles Rolls Blue Plaque

Take a stroll around London and you’ll soon become familiar with the famous blue plaques, which commemorate the noteworthy and historical characters who’ve lived and worked in the city. With over 900 plaques adorning buildings throughout the capital, you never know who you’re going to spot.

Take it one step further and set out on a blue plaque-spotting mission of your own. Download the official Blue Plaques app, and search for your favourite notable figures, or follow one of the pre-loaded guided walks. You’ll be led down fascinating side streets and interesting mews, in some little-known areas of London. You’ll see beautiful and unusual properties. Some are grand, some remarkably humble. You’ll come away wiser, having walked in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest inventors, politicians, military heroes, scientists, artists, engineers and performers. It’s a great way to discover some of the more residential parts of London, and best of all, it’s free.

Blue plaque hunting

Summer in London is the perfect time to go blue plaque hunting so we set out early one morning to find a couple that are particularly close to our heart:

Sir George Cayley's house and plaque

Sir George Cayley’s house and plaque

Sir George Cayley is often overlooked when people talk about the beginnings of aviation. Yet this pioneering man is known as the Father of Flight and was the first to develop the concept of the heavier than air machine. In 1853, years before the first powered flight was made at Kitty Hawk, Cayley’s glider carried his coachman 275 metres across Brompton Dale in the north of England; the first flight by an adult in an aircraft. In 2003, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the flight, Richard Branson helped the Royal Aeronautical Society re-enact it using a reproduction of the Cayley Flyer in the original field in Brompton Dale.

Richard recreates Cayley's historic flight

Richard recreates Cayley’s historic flight

Cayley’s house at 20 Hertford Street, Mayfair, is where he lived between 1800 and 1840. It’s tucked behind the distinctive Hilton Hotel, and despite being just yards from the hustle and bustle of Park Lane it’s surprisingly peaceful and uncrowded.

As part of the Cayley celebrations one of our 747s performed a rare flypast. It’s a flight that pilots Tim Bailey (retired) and Captain Mark Linney, aided by safety pilot Tony Royle remember fondly:   “I think the appearance of a jumbo jet flying past the Humber Bridge (en-route to the vale of Pickering) just below a low(ish) overcast sky must have been quite an impressive and startling sight!” says Mark. “I was co-pilot only because I held a CAA jet display authorisation and exemption which meant that we could comply with the then current regulations with regards to public air displays. Other than us three the aircraft was empty - no passengers or cargo or crew and not much fuel - so needless to say our climb to 30,000 feet from sea level after the event didn't take very long!”

As part of the Cayley celebrations, one of our 747s performed a rare flypast. It’s a flight that pilots Tim Bailey (Retired) and Captain Mark Linney, aided by safety pilot Tony Royle remember fondly:
“I think the appearance of a jumbo jet flying past the Humber Bridge (en-route to the Vale of Pickering) just below a low(ish) overcast sky must have been quite an impressive and startling sight!” says Mark. “I was co-pilot only because I held a CAA jet display authorisation and exemption which meant that we could comply with the then current regulations with regards to public air displays. Other than us three the aircraft was empty – no passengers or cargo or crew and not much fuel – so needless to say our climb to 30,000 feet from sea level after the event didn’t take very long!”

Our second blue plaque is also in Mayfair and a much more familiar name. Number 14-15 Conduit Street used to be the showroom for Rolls Royce cars and is where Charles Rolls used to work between 1905 and 1910. Unlike Cayley’s house, this is right in the middle of the West End’s most popular shopping area. Rolls was, of course, a forefather of aviation and started talking about developing aircraft engines around the same time as his first car went into production. His first aero engine was called ‘The Eagle’ and was produced to satisfy demand during the first world war. The Eagle went on to power one of the most significant flights in history when Alcock and Brown crossed the Atlantic for the first time in a Vickers Vimy aircraft. The Rolls Royce name and logo has since become one of the most enduring symbols of travel and can be seen on a huge variety of aircraft including many of our own.

14 Conduit Street, once the first showroom of Rolls Royce, now a Yohjiya Mamoto shop.

14 Conduit Street, once the first showroom of Rolls Royce, now a Yohjiya Mamoto shop.

A Rolls Royce Trent 1000 on our Boeing 787

A Rolls Royce Trent 1000 on our Boeing 787

Other aviation blue plaques in London commemorate:

Aircraft manufacturers Alliott Verdon Roe (founder of AVRO), Sir Geoffrey De Havilland, , Sir Frederick Handley, Sir Thomas Sopwith and the Short brothers as well as aviator  Amy Johnson

About the Blue Plaques

London’s blue plaques are owned and run by English Heritage. With more than 900 in the city there’s something of interest whether you’re into music or medicine, architecture or zoology, and everything in between.

The official English Heritage Blue Plaques are only awarded to people who have been dead for at least 20 years, a rule that didn’t apply when the very first plaque was installed in 1867. This can be found in the City of Westminster at 1c King Street and marks the house where Napoleon III lived, even though he was still ruling France at the time.

Visit English Heritage for more detail on the scheme and details of how you can nominate someone to receive one.Then put on your walking shoes and set off to explore one of London’s most absorbing quirks.

About Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.
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