Notorious visitor to be commemorated

An image of the White Hart looking as it would have done during Rousseau's visit. Photo courtesy Spalding Gentlemen's Society Museum/from a Hilkiah Burgess engraving. Photo: SG270212-112NG
An image of the White Hart looking as it would have done during Rousseau's visit. Photo courtesy Spalding Gentlemen's Society Museum/from a Hilkiah Burgess engraving. Photo: SG270212-112NG

THERE are around 850 blue plaques in the UK commemorating the link between important figures of the past and buildings in which they have either worked or lived, but there are none in Spalding.

However, that is about to change, thanks to the efforts of Spalding and District Civic Society.

A plaque is to be erected on The White Hart Hotel in the Market Place in recognition of the visit to that building in 1767 of the writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who incidentally was born 300 years ago this year.

Blue plaques have been used to highlight buildings with connections to important figures for over 140 years – the original scheme still survives today and is administered by English Heritage. However, it has inspired other systems across the country as well as overseas and many plaques we see today, such as the one planned for the White Hart, are these ‘unofficial’ signs because the criteria for English Heritage recognition is very strict.

John Charlesworth, planning officer for Spalding and District Civic Society, said: “Unlike other towns, Spalding has no blue plaques commemorating its distinguished inhabitants and visitors and the Civic Society for a while has felt this is a pity. We have a project in hand to get a number of blue plaques around the town.”

They are beginning with the White Hart plaque to commemorate what John calls “an unlikely event”.

“Why Rousseau stayed in the White Hart for nine days in the 18th century is a mystery,” says John, who has written an article on the subject in the Civic Society’s newsletter, which he edits.

In this article, John says that Rousseau, whose political philosophy had influenced the French Revolution, was not a happy man when he turned up at the White Hart on May 5, 1767. John writes: “In France Rousseau had been in danger of imprisonment and even street violence for his controversial views.”

Rousseau had been brought to safety in England, where he was feted by London society, but when his celebrity status became annoying he was found a quiet retreat at a country house in Derbyshire.

However, Rousseau vanished unexpectedly, leaving behind his money and possessions in three trunks, after being humiliated by a rather cruel joke. A fortnight later he turned up at the White Hart.

According to John, during those nine days Rousseau had a blue coat made and he struck up a friendly relationship with the vicar, John Dinham, who found him “cheerful, good-humoured, easy, and enjoying himself perfectly well.”

However, surgeon Edmund Jessop, a member of Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, who had sent Rousseau a note in Latin suggesting a chat about a piece he had had published, was firmly rebuffed.

According to John, Rousseau wasn’t enjoying his stay in the fens – he wrote to the Lord Chancellor of England saying his life was in danger from the plots of enemies and requesting a guard to conduct him safely out of England. John notes wryly: “His Lordship replied that an ordinary post-boy would be as safe as any guard he could provide.”

In the end Rousseau found his own way to Dover, breaking up a silver spoon or fork to pay his way. John doesn’t say whether his bill at the White Hart went unpaid.

The official unveiling of the plaque is to be carried out by Coun Gary Taylor on behalf of the Civic Society next Wednesday at 11.30am.

l If anyone has suggestions for other sites for blue plaques or would like more information, contact the secretary Marion Brassington on philip.mar@virgin.net