It was winning a war and enjoying the spoils that inspired the people of Rhodes to build the mighty statue of Sun God Helios which became known as The Colossus of Rhodes. The 110 foot high effigy lasted a mere 56 years, brought to his knees by an earthquake. Nelson’s Monument was similarly constructed, but has lasted coming up for 200 years.
There were great huzzahs and goings-on in August 1817 when, 12 years after the death of Britain’s greatest naval hero, the first stone of Nelson’s Monument (aka Norfolk Pillar, the Norfolk Naval Pillar and Britannia Monument) was laid. Designed by William Wilkins, during the next two years it rose to its full height of 144 foot (44 metres), standing clear on the South Denes beach, the tongue of sand between the Yare and the sea. It is slightly shorter than the 169 foot (52 metre) memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square.
The Grade 1 monument is in the style of a Doric column topped by six caryatid figures that support a statue of Britannia proudly atop a globe inscribed with the motto from Nelson’s coat of arms ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’, translating as ‘Let him who has merited it take the palm’. Britannia holds an olive branch in her outstretched right hand, a trident in her left, and looks inland towards Burnham Thorpe in north Norfolk, Nelson’s birthplace.
At the Column’s base are inscriptions commemorating Nelson’s victories at St Vincent in 1797, Aboukir on the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, and Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. On the western front a Latin inscription reads: ‘This great man Norfolk boasts her own, not only as born there of a respectable family, and as there having received his early education, but her own also in talents, manners and mind’.
The top is reached by two hundred and seventeen steps, and is opened on occasions to the public.
In 1982 the figure of Britannia and the six caryatids were replaced by a fibreglass copy and the structure was removed from English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register a year after its restoration in 2005 for the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Now surrounded by commercials and industrial buildings, there is still grandeur and fascination in a monument to a Norfolk man who bestrode his epoch and commanded the sea.
Did William Wilkins throw himself from the top when it was noticed Britannia was facing inland? For that other Nelson anecdotes go to Nelson in Norfolk.