Within the Golden Ball of St. Paul’s

In nineteenth-century London (and apparently into the 1960s), it was possible for the venturesome to climb all the way to the interior of the golden ball surmounting St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (right below the cross). One of those who made the effort was the intrepid feminist Ernestine Rose, who along with her husband was traveling abroad in the summer of 1856. Ernestine wrote in a letter to the Boston Investigator on July 6, 1856, “In St. Paul’s, after seeing the library, we went up to the Whispering Gallery, the clock, and the ball under the cross. It is 510 feet from the crypt; twelve persons can stand in it, but from the street it looks as small as the head of a child.”

Charles Dickens, Jr. (as you may have guessed, the eldest son of the Inimitable) wrote in his 1879 Dictionary of London, “[T]he clock is worth a visit, though we do not advise persons with delicate ears to approach it about the time of its striking the hour. Above is a stone gallery, whence, if the day be clear, a fair view of London and the Thames may be obtained; but if the visitor be still more ambitious, he may ascend more winding stairs, and reach the golden gallery far away above the dome. Thence upwards he may climb more steps until he reach the ball, an expedition which may be undertaken once in youth, but hardly ever again.” (Ernestine Rose, it should be noted, was well into middle age.)

Writing in the magazine Little Folks in 1883, James A. Manson left this daunting description of the ascent:

“Only fifty-six more steps, making altogether 560 steps from the marble pavement beneath, and we arrive at the Golden Ball. This part of our journey demands the utmost care, and I am fully prepared to corroborate the guide-book, which naïvely asserts that our goal ‘is reached with some difficulty, especially by ladies.’ The fifty-six steps in question are composed of three wooden ladders, very upright, and at least one of which has but a single banister, the other consisting of a rope. Here you will find yourself within some cross iron-work, and when you have managed to climb this, you will be able to look into the dark jaws of the Golden Ball. This immense ornament is six feet in diameter, and two and a half tons in weight. It will hold, so I have heard, four, or even more, people; but nobody who has ascended thus far need run the risk of climbing into it. On the top of the ball stands the famous glittering cross, which weighs one ton and a half, and is thirty feet high. Of ‘queer’ places it would be hard to discover one better befitting this epithet than the Golden Ball of St. Paul’s, and its approach. The access is so dark, and the ladders so steep, that great care is needed to avoid making a false step. These things make timid folk more timid, and cause even the stouter-hearted to be unusually cautious.

“In due course the return journey is resumed, and though going downward is much easier than climbing up, we are not displeased to find ourselves once more safe and sound on terra firma.”

None too soon, methinks.

(Engraving by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd from Wikipedia)

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