I’m kind of tickled that of all the thousands of memorials in Britain, there is just one arrogant enough to be known as ‘The Monument’. The nearby tube station is so cheeky that it drops the definite article altogether and calls itself, simply, ‘Monument’. For the benefit of those that don’t know, then, and are bursting to find out, this is the monument to London’s Great Fire of 1666. By the time this had finished, more than 13,000 houses and 87 churches had been destroyed, and most of the old medieval City of London was gone forever.
You might think that the remarkable thing about the Great Fire of London is that something like it hadn’t happened before; all those nice combustible timber-framed houses clustered cosily together, the docks packed with inflammable goods like tar, timber and tallow. It is probably even more remarkable that so few perished in the flames and smoke – officially there were just 4 fatalities, though historian Roy Porter gave the figure as 8. Apart from making an estimated 100,000 homeless (though one estimate went as high as 200,000), the long-term result, of course, shaped the London we see today. This was not the planned city of wide boulevards envisaged by some in the immediate aftermath – issues of land title proved too problematic for that – but it is still a very different place to what it might have been had disaster not struck that fateful day in 1666.
The fire began in royal baker Thomas (or Robert) Farryner’s bakehouse in Pudding Lane. Apprentice bun-maker, Noah, was out the back having a fag (cigarette, for the benefit of my American reader), chatting-up the comely wench Imogen, when… No - what really happened in the early hours of Sunday morning, 2nd September, isn’t clear, but Farryner and his household escaped, leaving behind a maid, who was too afraid to follow them across the rooftops and thus became the fire’s first victim.
The lord mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, woken from his beauty sleep to be told of the news, remarked that “a woman might piss it out” and returned to his slumbers. (His descendants no doubt went on to work for the Decca record label and reject the Beatles.) By mid-morning, fanned by a strong wind and with the benefit of a dry summer behind it, the fire threatened the whole city. The King, Charles II, instructed the creation of firebreaks by pulling down houses, but it was not until Thursday that the conflagration was brought under control - and it was still burning in places on Friday. At its height, the heat had been so intense that the molten lead from the roof of St Paul’s flowed down Ludgate Hill. Flames shot 300 feet into the air. One hero of the hour was the King’s brother, the Duke of York, who organised much of the fire fighting. Later, as King James II, he was unceremoniously booted off the throne in the revolution of 1688. Charles had been busy directing efforts to stop the fire spreading too, and was also concerned with relieving the distress of the victims, who were camped with what possessions they could salvage in the open space around Finsbury and Moorfields.
Some Londoners thought the fire had been started by foreigners, or Catholics – or both. A French protestant confessed to it, and was hanged for the crime, though he was undoubtedly innocent and almost certainly deranged. For years, many blamed the Catholics – despite the King’s assurances at the time that the disaster had been an Act of God. More probably, it was caused by a negligent baker who single-handedly changed London forever.
So, that’s what The Monument commemorates. It is 202 feet high, located 202 feet from where the fire started and topped off with a flaming urn of gilded copper. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it took 6 years to build (1671-77) and is the tallest free standing stone column in the world. There are 311 lung-busting steps the top, which was enclosed with a mesh case in the 19th century to prevent suicides. The views are great; but don’t go up if you are uncomfortable with heights.
The Monument is situated on the north end of London Bridge, on the corner of Fish Street Hill and Monument Street and on the site of the incarcerated church of St Margaret’s. Nearest tube? – it’s Monument; did I mention that?
More information HERE.