Vic Keegan’s Lost London 23: The Monument

by Vic Keegan

This is not a lost gem but it is definitely a hidden one. Despite its (disputed) claim to be the biggest free-standing stone column in the world, you can’t see it until you turn the final corner round one of the large office blocks enclosing it. My photo shows the top of it peeking out, with the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie behind it to either side.

The Monument is one of the most fascinating structures in the city, yet effectively invisible to most Londoners most of the time. Inside its Doric body is a spiral stone staircase with 311 steps to the top. It is 61.57 metres tall, exactly the distance between it and Thomas Farriner‘s – or Farynor‘s – bakery in Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London started in 1666, and which the Monument commemorates.

The fire itself was extraordinary. It raged for three days, razing the homes of seven eighths of the City’s 80,000 citizens and dozens of churches, yet only half a dozen people were officially reported dead. Another who died as a result of the fire was watchmaker Robert Hubert from Rouen, reportedly afflicted by mental illness, who falsely confessed to starting it, was found guilty and hung at Tyburn amid a climate of xenophobia in the country at that time. His innocence was only recognised later.

The Monument is also a tribute to the two people associated with it who were largely responsible for rebuilding the city after the fire: Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. Wren gets most of the credit for the Monument, but Hooke was mainly responsible for its construction.

Hooke was a scientist by profession with many inventions to his credit, including the pedometer. Never one to miss an opportunity, he constructed the Monument not just as a memorial but as a scientific instrument as well. He saw it as a tube as well as a stone structure and designed it to double as a zenith telescope for studying gravity and pendulum movements.

Today, the original laboratory can still be entered below the ticket kiosk and Hooke’s hinged lid in the flaming urn at the top of the structure can still open to give uninterrupted views of the sky. It used to be the tallest scientific instrument in the world, the Hadron Collider of its day.

Instalments 1-22 of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.

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