Better to preserve the memory of this dreadful visitation

What is London’s tallest column? My first thought was Nelson’s Column – it is certainly the most prominent of London’s vertiginous monuments. Nope – at just over 169 ft tall, it doesn’t even come close. Okay, then – what its plainer, thicker cousin further along the Mall. The Duke of York’s Column? Getting colder – this plain lump of a monument is just over 137 ft tall (including the statue which, as wits soon had it, was placed far enough away to allow his royal ‘highness’ to escape his many creditors).

The answer is the Monument, the unambiguously named monument to the Great Fire of London. It stands 202 ft high, which makes the Monument the tallest ‘isolated stone column’ in the world. IN THE WORLD! That is, until they build a taller one somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula or China.

But, for the moment, London can bask in the glory of its world-record beating column.

There are a number of interesting aspects to the Monument. The Monument was erected under the Rebuilding Act 1667, which required a brass or stone column be erected “the better to preserve the memory of this dreadful visitation”. It was to be located “on or as near unto the place where the said Fire so unhappily began”.

The column was originally designed to be topped with a phoenix rising triumphantly from sculptured flames of gilt bronze. This was found to be impractical, so the architect (Christopher Wren, no less), suggested a 15 foot statue of the King, Charles II. His majesty declined this ‘honour’, allegedly stating that as he didn’t start the fire, he didn’t see why he should crown the commemorative column.

Unfortunately, this apocryphal tale is more colourful than the most likely explanation – that such a large statue was deemed impractical. Instead the Monument was topped with (in Wren’s words) a “large ball of metall gilt” or (in the word’s of the City of London Corporation) a “flaming orb of copper”. Which are both nicer descriptions than a “golden flaming Christmas pudding“.

The column’s 202 ft height is no accident – it is sited exactly 202 ft to the location of Thomas Farynor’s bakery on Pudding Lane, the alleged origin of the Great Fire. Finally completed in 1677, it became one of London’s first tourist attractions. It must have presented its first visitors with the awe inspiring sight of a city steadily rebuilding itself from the ravages of almost total destruction.