When I first met John Gale at the Tony De Vit blue plaque unveiling in September 2022 he was a quiet and reserved gentleman. At our second meeting John is all those things and more, but this time we had a chance to sit and chat about John designing the iconic blue plaques that celebrate Birmingham’s heritage and are seen all over the city.


John is a dedicated Apiarist, (bee keeper), an impassioned vexillologist, (a person who studies flags). He is a Ferroequinologist, (train enthusiast) and he’s travelled all over the world, including Beijing to Birmingham, 5061-miles by train!


He has been on BCS’s Heritage Committee for over 20-years, designing the familiar blue plaques celebrating Birmingham’s past, it’s people and its places.


We’ve all seen them, we’ve all stopped to read them and we’ve all learnt something from them. And if you are a Brummie, every time you see a blue plaque it makes you a little bit prouder of who we are and what we are as a city and as a community. It’s thanks to Birmingham Civic Society and John that we can celebrate our history and heritage in such a way.


Working for the city as an engineer for over 40-years, making street and traffic signs amongst other things, John retired 20-years-ago, but ironically became busier than even in his retirement.


Five years before his retirement Birmingham Civic Society asked John to design the iconic blue plaques. He jumped at the chance and has been designing them ever since.


He has many interesting stories about the blue plaques and there are two official rules. Any person being celebrated with a blue plaque must’ve lived in the city for at least five-years and they must have been deceased for at least 20-years.


According to John, the unofficial rules when mounting the blue plaques – make them low enough to be able to read and high enough to be unable to reach!


John’s passion for the blue plaques is clear to see, he has an analytical mind, he remembers every detail and can recall blue plaques placed in a certain area, at a certain time for a certain someone.


He keeps the blue plaque silicone rubber masks which are used to form the impression in the sand casting process now employed in the foundry where they are now made.


He has blue plaques in storage, he has blue plaque drinks coasters and an office that looks like a treasure trove of fantastic artefacts and paraphernalia!


One of his more memorable blue plaques was made for Christian Kunzle, a Swiss chef and philanthropist who opened cafes and restaurants in Birmingham. Also, making cakes and pastries in factories in the city to supply his restaurant chains.


He was commemorated with a blue plaque on the site of his former factory on Broad Street in 2000 above the window of a building society.


However, there was a report that the plaque on Auckinleck House had disappeared, but on closer inspection, it was just hidden. During building renovations, the plaque had been covered with metal sheeting, just as the building was to be converted into a hotel.


John says: ‘One of my jobs was to get the blue plaques mounted on the walls of buildings. I had two brilliant tradesmen who helped me out with miscellaneous jobs every so often so I asked them to erect the plaques.


‘What should’ve been a normal plaque mounting turned into an emotional moment, when it turns out one of the tradesmen had been personally affected by Kunzle’s philanthropy,’ John remembers.


‘As a child, he had suffered from a serious bronchial condition and was sent to Switzerland to Kunzle’s chateau to recover. Away from the pollution of a heavily industrialised city the fresh air was beneficial to these ailments – it may have saved this tradesman’s life.


‘Kunzle’s generosity in the city, looking after the health of these local children had a lasting-legacy on the workman and he talked affectionately about it.


‘It was a great moment to share that day!’



John’s favourite plaque to design was for Marie Bethell Beauclerc, the first female reporter in England and a pioneer of Pitman shorthand and typewriting.


‘I remember with a little bit of fear and dread the request for some of the dedicated text on the plaque to be written in Pitman shorthand.’ John says.


‘The symbols, the dashes and the dots were so intricate and I was very aware that the slightest change in a line or a curve or a dot during the design and manufacture of the plaque could completely change the meaning of the sentence.’


It was a shaky time in the workshop for John etching the pitman symbols on the plaque, but it worked. The Pitman shorthand reads, ‘Pioneer of shorthand and typewriting.’ A tricky plaque to design, but one John remembers fondly.



A plaque that John holds dear is a silver plaque dedicated to the Ritz Club in Kings Heath. A music venue in a small suburb of South Birmingham that saw all the greatest pop and rock gods of the 1960’s play there including, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, The Kinks and Pink Floyd as well as many more.



The Ritz club was an iconic building, steeped in rock history until sadly it burned down a few years ago. Determined to save a part of its colourful history John went to the burnt-out building and personally retrieved the plaque from the wreckage. With nowhere else for the plaque to be re-homed John keeps it as a memento to Birmingham’s colourful musical heritage.



John’s most recent blue plaque design came for Tony De Vit, legendary hard house DJ of the 1980’s and 1990’s. A musical pioneer who started his career in Birmingham’s gay scene including the Nightingale Club and Heaven Nightclub in London. Building a studio at the Custard Factory where he worked tirelessly to produce some of the most influential Hard House music made.



‘It was a blue plaque unveiling like no other.’ Say John. ‘There was at least 100 people there, all clubbers, dedicated fans of Tony De Vit, it was a carnival of colour, there was a great energy there, it was lots of fun and there was a lot of love for Tony. It was a more contemporary plaque unveiling and unlike many we have done before.’


‘I think I may have stood out a bit for the wrong reasons because I was wearing a tie – not tie-dye!’


But as an observer of the day, it was quite clear that Tony De Vit’s family and friends took John into their hearts, chatting to him about the plaque, grateful for Tony’s huge talent to be recognised and proud of the blue plaque that is testament to Tony, a revolutionary DJ perfecting his craft in the 1980’s and 1990’s.


But this isn’t a one off because BCS intend to celebrate more contemporary people and places. In the next few months BCS are very excited to be unveiling a plaque that will celebrate an iconic place and an iconic musical phenomenon from the 1980’s.


Exciting times, so watch this space!


John’s one tiny disappointment is not being able to make a plaque dedicated to Barbara Cartland who lived on Cartland Road in South Birmingham.


John remembers: ‘The plaque was talked about a lot. I was very excited about it because quite aptly it was going to be pink – not blue!’


John flies the flag for Birmingham’s heritage – quite literally such is his passion for Birmingham and as a member of the flag institute he helped design the Birmingham flag along with a local 14-year-old boy from the city in 2014.


When I asked John who he might want to dedicate a blue plaque to, he was quick to say, ‘I have no idea, it’s not my job, I’m a doer not a thinker!’


But I disagree John. You are a doer and you are a thinker and most of all you are a creator and a maker of wonderful things that we’ve enjoyed last century, this century and many more centuries into the future – who else can say their designs will celebrated and enjoyed long after all of us are long gone….



By Justine Marklew