The Great Fire of London, which devastated the capital for three days in early September, 1666, is commemorated by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren with a 200-foot column steps away from where the fire started. But less well known, hidden away down a side street called Cock Lane, is a rather more unusual memorial to the great conflagration: a peculiar golden statue of a rather rotund lad.
The Golden Boy statue is located on the approximate spot where the Great Fire of London was eventually extinguished, but not before laying to waste approximately 70,000 of the 80,000 homes inside the old City of London proper. The fire was thought to have started at a bakery on Pudding Lane. It raged through the narrow streets of London, consuming the wooden homes and tenements.
At first, the Great Fire was blamed on the Catholics as a Papist plot to destroy the city. Such was the anti-Catholic feeling in the City that Wren’s grandiose doric column originally bore the inscription, “the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction,” which, incredibly, remained on the monument as late as 1830.
But the strange Golden Boy, found a 20 minute walk away to the west, lays the blame for the Great Fire somewhere else entirely. Underneath the portly two-foot golden statue is the inscription, “This Boy is in Memory Put up for the late FIRE of LONDON Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony.” Presumably from the point of view of the statue’s creator, the Great Fire was caused by Londoners eating too many pies.
Underneath the tubby Golden Boy the inscription continues, “the Boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral. The text describes him as the “Boy at Pye Corner.” This is thought to refer not to a prior street name, but to a long forgotten pub which stood on the corner, possibly called The Magpie. (Literacy was a rarity among common Londoners of the time, but a tavern sign with an image of a Magpie was easily understood.)
It’s unknown exactly when the Golden Boy at Pye Corner was installed, but research undertaken by the excellent London history blog Flickering Lamps shows an engraving of Pye Corner from 1791 with the boy in place.
Visit London withAtlas Obscura Trips
London Science Weekend: Medicine and Science in the Press
Join New York Times Journeys and Atlas Obscura for three days of scientific learning, special access and exploration in London. Accompanied by Times journalists and scientific experts, meet people contributing to the history of medicine and scientific journalism. This two-track program includes panels, exclusive visits and access to some of the best scientific minds available to concentrate on science reporting or medical history.