Erected to perpetually commemorate the Great Fire of London which destroyed the City in 1666, this unique structure at once became a tourist attraction. However, it also attracted less desirable notice. It became both a hijacked memorial to the rabid anti-catholicism that cost James II his throne and a favourite place for suicides. Both are now thankfully superseded and the famous views, though less spectacular, are still infinitely rewarding.
The Act of Parliament which provided for the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire in 1666 also provided for the commemoration of the Fire by a suitable monument:
"And the better to preserve the memory of this dreadful Visitation, Be it further enacted, That a Column of Pillar of Brase or Stone be erected on or as neere unto the place where the said Fire soe unhappily began as conveniently may be, in perpetual Remembrance thereof, with such inscription thereon as hereafter by the Maior and Court of Aldermen in that behalfe be directed."The design of the column was entrusted to Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. The responsibility for erecting it was put in the hands of the City Lands Committee of the Corporation of London. Among the many designs considered by Wren and Hooke was one for a bronxe pillar with bronze flames leaping from holes in the shaft which was to be surmounted by a Phoenix. However, in the end, the simple design of a column of the Doric Order (note 1) was chosen. It was constructed of Portland Stone between 1671 and 1677. Its total height is 202 feet (61.6 m) which is the exact distance between it and the baker's shop in Pudding Lane where the Great Fire started. It is the tallest isolated stone column in the world.
The structure is hollow and contains a cantilevered spiral staircase consisting of 311 black marble steps. This opens onto a viewing platform which is surmounted by a drum and a flaming urn of gilt bronze which symbolises the Fire. The urn was Hooke's idea, Wren would have preferred a statue of Charles II. Three of the panels on the pedestal bear inscriptions in Latin which were written by Dr. Gale, Dean of York. That on the north side translates as:
"In the year of Christ 1666, the second day of September, eastward from hence, at the distance of two hundred and two feet (the height of this column), about midnight, a most terrible fire broke out, which, driven on by a high wind, not only wasted the adjacent parts, but also places very remote, with incredible noise and fury. It consumed eighty-nine churches, the City gates, Guildhall, many public structures, hospitals, schools, libraries, a vast number of stately edifices, thirteen thousand two hundred dwelling-houses, four hundred streets. Of the six-and-twenty wards it utterly destroyed fifteen, and left eight others shattered and half burnt. The ruins of the City were four hundred and thirty-six acres, from the Tower by the Thames side to the Temple Church, and from the north-east along the City wall to Holborn Bridge. To the estates and fortunes of the citizens it was merciless, but to their lives very favourable, that it might in 11 things resemble the last conflagration of the world. The destruction was sudden, for in a small space of time the City was seen most flourishing, and reduced to nothing. Three days after, when this fatal fire had baffled all human counsels and endeavours in the opinion of all, it stopped as it were by a command from Heaven, and was on every side extinguished."The Inscription on the south panel records the part played by Charles II and Parliament in the rebuilding of the City:
"Charles the Second, son of Charles the Martyr, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, a most generous prince, commiserating the deplorable state of things, whilst the ruins were yet smoking, provided for the comfort of his citizens and the ornament of his city, remitted their taxes, and referred the petitions of the magistrates and inhabitants to the Parliament, who immediately passed an Act that public works should be restored to greater beauty with public money, to be raised by an imposition on coals; that churches, and the Cathedral of Saint Paul, should be rebuilt from their foundations, with all magnificence; that bridges, gates, and prisons should be new made, the sewers cleansed, the streets made straight and regular, such as were steep levelled, and those too narrow made wider; markets and shambles removed to separate places. They also enacted that every house should be built with party-walls, and all in front raised of equal height, and those walls all of square stone or brick, and that no man should delay building beyond the space of seven years. Moreover, care was taken by law to prevent all suits about their bounds. Also anniversary prayers were enjoined; and to perpetuate the memory hereof to posterity, they caused this column to be erected. The work was carried on with diligence, and London is restored, but whether with greater speed or beauty may be made a question. At three years' time the world saw that finished which was supposed to be the business of an age."The inscription on the east panel names the Lord Mayors who held office during the construction of the Monument:
"This pillar was begun,The west panel is an allegorical bas-relief by The Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (father of the celebrated comedian, writer and Impresario Colley Cibber. John Strype described it as follows:
In the year 1671,
Sir Richard Ford, Knight, being Lord Mayor of London,
In the Mayoralties of
Sir George Waterman, Kt.
Sir Robert Hanson, Kt.
Sir William Hooker, Kt.
Sir Robert Viner, Kt.
Sir Joseph Sheldon, Kt.
And finished, Sir Thomas Davies being Lord Mayor, in the year 1677."
"a representation of the destruction of the City by the Fire, and the restitution of it, by several curiously engraven figures in full proportion. First is the figure of a woman representing London, sitting on ruins, in a most disconsolate posture, her head hanging down, and her hair all loose about her; the sword lying by her, and her left hand carefully laid upon it. A second figure is Time, with his wings and bald head, coming behind her and gently lifting her up. Another female figure on the side of her, laying her hand upon her, and with a sceptre winged in her other hand, directing her to look upwards, for it points up to two beautiful goddesses sitting in the clouds, one leaning upon a cornucopia, denoting Plenty, the other having a palm-branch in her left hand, signifying Victory, or Triumph. Underneath this figure of London in the midst of the ruins is a dragon with his paw upon the shield of a red cross, London's arms. Over her head is the description of houses burning, and flames breaking out through the windows. Behind her are citizens looking on, and some lifting up their hands. Opposite against these figures is a pavement of stone raised, with three or four steps, on which appears King Charles II., in Roman habit, with a truncheon in his right hand and a laurel about his head, coming towards the woman in the foresaid despairing posture, and giving orders to three others to descend the steps towards her. The first hath wings on her head, and in her hand something resembling a harp. Then another figure of one going down the steps following her, resembling Architecture, showing a scheme or model for building of the City, held in the right hand, and the left holding a square and compasses. Behind these two stands another figure, more obscure, holding up an hat, denoting Liberty. Next behind the king is the Duke of York, holding a garland, ready to crown the rising City, and a sword lifted up in the other hand to defend her. Behind this a third figure, with an earl's coronet on his head. A fourth figure behind all, holding a lion with a bridle in his mouth. Over these figures is represented an house in building, and a labourer going up a ladder with an hodd upon his back. Lastly, underneath the stone pavement whereon the king stands is a good figure of Envy peeping forth, gnawing a heart."The four dragons at the base of the column are by Edward Pierce the Younger.
In 1681, at the height of the anti-Catholic frenzy which the following year deprived James II of the throne, the following inscription was carved around the base of the structure:
(West) "THIS PILLAR WAS SET VP IN PERPETVALL REMEMBRANCE OF THAT MOST DREADFVLL BVRNING OF THIS PROTESTANTJames II had it effaced but it was carved again (and deeper) after William III had usurped his throne. In 1733, the poet Alexander Pope (a Catholic) was provoked by this to write in his An Essay on Man Epistle 3:
(South) "CITY, BEGVN AND CARRYED ON BY YE TREACHERY & MALICE OF YE POPISH FACTIO IN YE BEGINNING OF SEPTEMBR IN YE YEAR OF
(East) "OVR LORD 1666, IN ORDER FOR CARRYING ON THEIR HORRID PLOTT FOR EXTIRPATING
(North) "THE PROTESTANT AND OLD ENGLISH LIBERTY, AND INTRODUCING POPERY AND SLAVERY."
Where London's column, pointing at the skies,The inscription was finally removed in 1830 after the Catholic Emancipation Act had restored most of their civil rights, including ownership of property and the holding of public office, to British Catholics.
Like a tall bully, lifts the head and lies.
The column has had a varied history. No sooner was it completed than the Fellows of the Royal Society began to use it for their astronomical experiments. However, the vibrations caused by the passing traffic interfered to much with their measurements and they abandoned it. Naturally such a structure could not but become an immediate tourist attraction. People flocked to climb the 311 steps and enjoy the panoramic view of London and the Home Counties. This was how (the acerbic) Charles Knight described it in 1841:
"Though the view is not, and cannot be under such an atmosphere, very extensive, it is one that (out of London) the world cannot parallel. It is not beautiful - that sea of house-tops, with St. Paul's and countless other churches and public buildings rising up from its surface as from so many islands; it is not sublime, in the physical idea of the words; yet "dull" indeed "would he be of soul" in whose mind no sense of beauty and sublimity was raised as he gazed on that wonderful congregation of human homes.Soon after he arrived in the City, in 1762, James Boswell went to see it. Half way up the stairs he had an attack of vertigo but forced himself to go on as felt that he would despises himself for his timidity. He reached the gallery but found it "horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires". His vertigo was so great that he dared not look around him and the handrail offered him no consolation or assurance. He shuddered as every wagon passed down Gracechurch Street because he dreaded that the shaking of the earth would make the tremendous pile tumble to the foundations." On June 15, 1825, the Monument was illuminated with portable gas, in commemoration of laying the first stone of New London Bridge. A lamp was placed at each of the loop-holes of the column, to give the idea of its being wreathed with flame; whilst two other series were placed on the edges of the gallery, to which the public were admitted during the evening.
The door from the staircase to the balcony faces the east; in that direction therefore we are now sending our inquiring glance. The Tower, with its great keep, is the first object of attention, of which we remember FitzStephen says, "the mortar of its foundation was tempered with the blood of beasts." To the left of the Tower the long facade of the Mint arrests the eye, whilst to the right aye see the roof of the Custom House, and the tiers of shipping moored in the Pool far away into the distance. Near, and directly in front of us, is the fairy-looking spire of St Dunstan's in the East, one of the many churches we see around whose history is connected with that of the Monument by a close tie, as having arisen like the latter from the ashes of the Great Fire.
Beyond, interminable lines of docks are dimly descried, and on a clear day the hills of Kent, nine or ten miles off. On the other side of the river a bright column of smoke and the sharp whistle of the engine direct us to the train of the Greenwich Railway just starting. Turning the corner of the pillar, we behold on the south the countless chimneys of the breweries and other manufactories of Southwark rising up against the background of the Surrey hills, and the lofty piles of warehouses which edge the river bank, over one of which the church of St. Mary Overies rears its lofty and proud-looking tower, as though indignant at the unfitness of its humbler neighbours for such antique and romance-honoured walls.
The bridges, those glorious architectural triumphs, and the curving Thames which they bestride, form a highly picturesque feature from the Monument. There is London Bridge, the youngest, and perhaps the noblest of the whole, with the Fishmongers' Hall at its foot; Southwark and Blackfriars in a tolerably straight line; then comes Waterloo crossing the curve; and beyond, the Thames, with the black sluggish barges so characteristic of this part of the river, is lost to our smoke-bedimmed vision. But though the bridge of Westminster is invisible, not so its famous Abbey: there it stands, with its dark body and lofty towers advanced city-wards, as if to defend its sacred precincts from the inroads of irreligion and wickedness, ever rife in populous places.
But the great feature of the scene is the view westwards of St. Paul's. Its vast size and noble proportions are perhaps from no other spot so strikingly developed. Instead of looking down upon it, as we do, or appear to do, upon every other object, we have rather the sense of looking up to it even from this elevation of two hundred and two feet. Neither does the mass of houses around it appear at all to lessen its height or form. It might stand upon them; so grandly does it appear to rise - base, cupola, and cross-above all obstructions.
On the north there is little to attract attention: churches and house-roofs, house-roofs and churches, extend from the farthest point of sight down to the base of the column on which we stand, and require no more particular notice; unless we may just mention that, among the other buildings particularly conspicuous, stand the lofty Guildhall to the left, and the tall tower of the Blackwall Railway to the right. We may conclude this hasty sketch of our view from the Monument on a gusty August afternoon by two or three general remarks. What has been called the natural basin of London may thence be seen very clearly, although its edges are not distinctly definable in some parts. Looking round from Islington, we have Highgate, Hampstead, the elevated land to the left of Westminster Abbey, the Surrey and Kent hills. And nearly the whole of this vast area is occupied by London! for few indeed are the spaces vacant of houses which the eye can detect even from the balcony of the Monument."
The structure also attracted suicides:
"Six persons have destroyed themselves by leaps from the Monument. The first of these unhappy creatures was William Green, a weaver, in 1750. On June 25 this man, wearing a green apron, the sign of his craft, came to the Monument door, and left his watch with the doorkeeper. A few minutes after he was heard to fall. Eighteen guineas were found in his pocket. The next man who fell from the Monument was Thomas Craddock, a baker. He was not a suicide; but, in reaching over to see an eagle which was hung in a cage from the bars, he overbalanced himself, and was killed. The next victim was Lyon Levi, a Jew diamond merchant in embarrassed circumstances, who destroyed himself on the 18th of January, 1810. The third suicide (September 11, 1839) was a young woman named Margaret Meyer. This poor girl was the daughter of a baker in Hemming's Row, St. Martin'sin- the-Fields. Her mother was dead, her father bed-ridden, and there being a large family, it had become necessary for her to go out to service, which preyed upon her mind. The October following, a boy named Hawes, who had been that morning discharged by his master, a surgeon, threw himself from the same place. He was of unsound mind, and his father had killed himself. The last suicide was in August, 1842, when a servant-girl from Hoxton, named Jane Cooper, while the watchman had his head turned, nimbly climbed over the iron railing, tucked her clothes tight between her knees, and dived headforemost downwards. In her fall she struck the griffin on the right side of the base of the Monument, and, rebounding into the road, cleared a cart in the fall. The cause of this act was not discovered. Suicides being now fashionable here, the City of London (not a moment too soon) caged in the top of the Monument in the present ugly way."In the 19th century, John Hollingshead and some companions spent the night on the gallery. He has left us this description of his experience:
"The puppet men now hurry to and fro, lighting up the puppet shops, which cast a warm, rich glow upon the pavement. A cross of dotted lamps springs into light, the four arms of which are the four great thoroughfares from the City. Red lines of fire come out behind black, solid, sullen masses of building; and spires of churches stand out in strong, dark relief at the side of busy streets.In 1732 a sailor is recorded to have slid down a rope from the gallery to the Three Tuns tavern in Gracechurch Street; as did also, next day, a waterman's boy. In the Times newspaper of August 22, 1827, there appeared the following hoaxing advertisement:
"Up in the housetops, under green-shaded lamps, you may see the puppet clerks turning quickly over the clean, white, fluttering pages of puppet day-books and ledgers; and from east to west you see the long, silent river, glistening here and there with patches of reddish light, even through the looped steeple of the Church of St. Magnus the Martyr. Then, in a white circle of light round the City, dart out little nebulous clusters of houses, some of them high up in the air, mingling, in appearance, with the stars of heaven; some with one lamp, some with two or more; some yellow, and some red; and some looking like bunches of fiery grapes in the congress of twinkling suburbs.
"Then the bridges throw up their arched lines of lamps, like the illuminated garden-walks at Cremorne. The moon has now increased in power, and, acting on the mist, brings out the surrounding churches one by one. There they stand in the soft light, a noble army of temples thickly sprinkled amongst the money-changers. Any taste may be suited in structural design. There are high churches, low churches; flat churches; broad churches, narrow churches; square, round, and pointed churches; churches with towers like cubical slabs sunk deeply in between the roofs of houses; towers like toothpicks, like three-pronged forks, like pepper-casters, like factory chimneys, like limekilns, like a sailor's trousers hung up to dry, like bottles of fish-sauce, and like St. Paul's a balloon turned topsy-turvy. There they stand, like giant spectral watchmen guarding the silent city, whose beating heart still murmurs in its sleep.
"At the hour of midnight they proclaim, with iron tongue, the advent of a New Year, mingling a song of joy with a wail for the departed.
"The dark grey churches and houses spring into existence one by one. The streets come up out of the land, and the bridges come up out of the water. The bustle of commerce, and the roar of the great human ocean - which has never been altogether silent-revive. The distant turrets of the Tower, and the long line of shipping on the river, become visible.
"Clear smoke still flows over the housetops, softening their outlines, and turning them into a forest of frosted trees.
"Above all this is a long black mountain-ridge of cloud, tipped with glittering gold; beyond float deep orange and light yellow ridges, bathed in a faint purple sea. Through the black ridge struggles a full, rich, purple sun, the lower half of his disc tinted with grey. Gradually, like blood-red wine running into a round bottle, the purple overcomes the grey; and at the same time the black cloud divides the face of the sun into two sections, like the visor of a harlequin."
"Incredible as it may appear, a person will attend at the Monument, and will, for the sum of 2,500, undertake to jump clear off the said Monument; and in coming down will drink some beer and eat a cake, act some trades, shorten and make sail, and bring ship safe to anchor. As soon as the sum stated is collected, the performance will take place; and if not performed, the money subscribed to be returned to the subscribers." History does not record the sequel!
The structure was completely renovated in 1834 and the gilt-bronze urn regilded. It suffered some damage in the bombings of the Second World War and in 1954 the stone was steam-cleaned and the shrapnel scars eradicated.
Today it is still maintained by the Corporation of London at its own expense. It is open to the public every day from 10am-6pm. Admission costs 1.50 per adult and 50p per child (under 16). The view is now much curtailed by the modern buildings in the City and beyond but, as for the 14-year old nephew of the author, on his first-ever visit to London in July 2002, still an experience NOT to be missed vertiginous uncles notwithstanding!
Find the Monument on the Map
Note: 1. Doric: The term denotes a classical order of architecture which is characterised by a plain, sturdy column and a thick square abacus (the flat slap on the top of the column) resting on a rounded moulding.