Fires demand causes and prompt renewals. Commemorating fires and their destructive effects involves commemorating restoration.
I’ve visited many monuments but only last weekend visited for the first time as an adult I went to see The Monument. Now a Grade I listed monument, it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr Robert Hooke, and built between 1671 and 1677. This is the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Its unnamed status as ‘The Monument’ defines its incomparable significance for London, marking an end for the old city and a new beginning for the new city following the disasterous fire of 1666. In turn, it gives its name to the street and Underground station adjacent.
The candle-like form comprises of a Doric column of Portland Stone topped by a viewing platform, drum and copper urn. Brass fire emits from it the urn, denoting the Great Fire. The classical illusions also embody concepts of death and renewal, as found in contemporaneous funerary monuments in churches and cathedrals of the late 17th century across England and beyond. A phoenix was originally planned for the top of the monument. Fire is also evoked by the dragons at the corners at the top of its base.
Location and height are deployed to make a combined significance: it is 202 feet high, and 202 feet from the agreed starting point of the Great Fire in Pudding Lane on 2 Sept 1666. Situated at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, around the base there are three Latin inscriptions (North, East and South) and an elaborate sculptured panel to the west.
The northern panel commemorates the fire itself and the distance of the fire’s start from the Monument. The ‘swiftness and noise’ of the fire is emphasised, destroying 89 churches, gates, the Guildhall, public edicies, hospitals, schools, libraries and 15,200 houses, 400 streets of the 26 wards. The geographical spread of the fire is then described and its demise on the third day. Indeed, the text has had an interesting biography of its own, originally blaming Catholics for the fire and augmented in 1681, it was augmented with the phase ‘(but Popish frenzy, which through such horrors is not yet quenched’). They were then deleted following Catholic Emancipation in 1830.
The commemoration of the Monument itself is inscribed on the eastern panel.
To the south, they commemorate the fire in the context of King Charles II’s actions following the conflagration, including the rebuilding and redesign of the city, building in stone and brick, and the construction of sewers. The speed and completeness of the rebuilding ‘in three short years’ is the emphasis, and the raising of the monument itself as a ‘perpetual memorial to posterity.’
The sculptured panel shows the Duke of York (James) with King Charles surrounded by liberty, science and architecture directing the process of architecture.
311 steps allow you to ascend to a viewing gallery. Initially one would have had clear views through the city: today it is restricted by modern high-rise buildings, particularly to the north. The original aim was for it to be a place for Royal Society experiments, later it became an attraction and viewing point.
One accidental death and 6 suicides took place from The Monument until it was enclosed in an iron cage in 1842.
The Monument is nowadays distills commemoration in relation to two fires: the Great Fire and the fire-bombing of London in the Blitz, when St Paul’s and The Monument acquired patriotic connotations and embodied resistence in the face of aerial assault.