Helene Aldwinckle has emerged victorious from among the nominees for Southwark’s blue plaque scheme this year.
The celebrated Second World War codebreaker, broadcaster, gallerist and literary translator, who spent the last 40 years of her life in Dulwich, fought off stiff competition in a year of outstanding nominees, all of whom deserve their own recognition.
Richard Aldwinckle, one of Helene’s children, welcomed the news that his mother had won this year’s competition.
“Helene’s family is very pleased and proud that her secret war service is being recognised in this way,” he said. “She would have been deeply honoured and perhaps a little bit surprised! We are very grateful to the many readers of Southwark News and to those from further afield who wrote in to vote for her.”
Helene was awarded the Legion D’Honneur by the French government late in her life, and also got a letter from the UK’s then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009. But like many women, she was not showered in praise in her lifetime, despite her vital contribution to the war effort.
Richard said the blue plaque, which should go up at her former home on Farquhar Road in Dulwich, would help right that wrong.
“It is important to recognise the contribution of those able women, like my mother, who made a significant difference to the outcome of the second world war but who have received little recognition. This helps to put that right.”
Unsurprisingly, people who voted for Helene often praised her codebreaking work, but those who knew her personally also mentioned her “wonderful” and self-effacing nature.
Helene got the most votes in 2021 but all of the other nominees were also richly deserving and, in another year, any might have been the winner.
James Butterworth was a pioneering social worker in Walworth, who founded and ran Clubland, a youth club attached to his Methodist church, for 50 years – starting at the age of just 25.
Born into penury himself, he came to London after serving in the First World War and transformed the lives of countless young people. One voter said: “Quite simply Clubland changed my life.”
Len Deighton was an author, journalist, cookery book writer, and historian, who is thought to have written the first novel typed on a word processor from his Merrick Square home in Borough.
Along with Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré, Mr Deighton, 92, is often ranked among the foremost British authors of spy fiction of the twentieth century. A voter said: “For the borough not to honour him in this way would be the equivalent of Baker Street ignoring Sherlock Holmes!”
Long-time Peckham resident Barbara Steveni, who died in 2020, has been described as “the most important artist nobody’s heard of” – who “expanded the possibilities of what art could be”.
She co-founded and ran the Artist Placement Group (APG) from the 1960s, an organisation that placed artists inside big businesses and government agencies to try and bridge the gap.
One voter called her an “amazing artist, activist and philanthropist”, whose work “will continue to inspire generations of artists and scholars across the globe.”
Francis Peek, a nineteenth century businessman and philanthropist, is responsible for Dulwich Park becoming public land – an enormous, thirteen-year undertaking involving huge sums of money, elections, debates and finally a law being passed by Parliament.
He also donated considerable sums to get churches built across south London and was instrumental in hundreds of schools for ordinary children being launched.
The News would like to thank everyone who voted in the competition this year, as well as all those who put forward nominees. We would also like to encourage nominees for next year’s vote.
Southwark Heritage Association (SHA), which runs the programme in the borough, has put up more than 50 blue plaques commemorating people with local connections and Southwark institutions that are particularly worth knowing about since 2002.
The News is another of the programme’s founders, alongside Southwark Council. The scheme first came as a way of getting round the strict criteria put in place by English Heritage – which runs the national programme – that a building must be standing and a person dead to qualify.
But we rely on the people of Southwark to first say who or what they think should be honoured. After nominations have been vetted, a shortlist will be drawn up for people in the borough to vote on.
If you would like to nominate someone for next year’s competition, please visit the SHA website.