Saturday, October 04, 2008

Threading Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment

On the Victoria Embankment in London, passed by millions of pedestrians every year, is an Egyptian obelisk known as Cleopatra's Needle. One of three, the other two are in New York and Paris, it is made of red granite and stands 68 feet tall. Passerbys occasionally stop and look at it or take a photograph for their album, but few would know the dramatic story of how the 180 ton monolith came to be erected in London, far from its original home.

The obelisk was presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Egyptian Viceroy, to commemorate the Battle of the Nile in which the British, under Nelson, defeated the French Fleet in August 1798; and the victory of the British under Sir Ralph Abercrombie over the French in March 1801 at the Battle of Alexandria. Although the British government graciously accepted the gift, it refused to pay for the transportation of the massive obelisk to London; a cost estimated at around 5,000 pounds. In fact, as early as 1801 plans had been put in train to bring Cleopatra's Needle to London but they had been dropped when it was feared that the removal of the artefact would offend the Turkish authorities.

In the 1830s, the matter was still very much in the public eye. According to W. R. Wilde in Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, (2d ed. 1844),

Captain T. C. Head, who, in 1833, brought this matter strongly before the public, adds, 'that twelve years had elapsed since the notification was made, and the Needle of Cleopatra remains in its neglected state.' There seems to be a disregard of courtesy, as well as of policy, in not accepting the offer of a grateful prince.
Exactly what was to be done with the gift was a topic of popular discussion in the 1850s. Mr Punch himself, in 1851, seemed to delight in playing word games with the obelisk. At one point, he expressed his view that there seemed

some difficulty in getting the public to have an eye to Cleopatra's needle, which is, nevertheless, valuable, on account of its connexion with the thread of history.
There was, however, more serious discussion in the House of Commons in 1852 about it being brought to England by the proprietors of the Crystal Palace newly relocated in Sydenham.

It was to be brought at the proprietors' expense but the Government reserved the right, should the Crystal Palace not prove as popular as expected, to take possession of it on the payment of the Proprietors' expenses. Toward the end of the decade, Charles Dickens's All the Year Round, was expressing the view that something needed to be done. The Needle belonged to England and should be brought home! Nonetheless, it was not until the mid-1870s that serious efforts were made to bring the obelisk to England.

At a dinner party at the home of the well known artist, Edward A. Goodall, John Dixon, an engineer, proposed that the Needle be brought to England by private means. Not long after this, Erasmus (later Sir Erasmus) Wilson offered to fund the project. Wilson was a highly successful dermatologist interested in Egyptian antiquities and a man of varied and widespread interests.(1)

The Pontoon "Cleopatra"
The plan that was settled on for getting the obelisk to England revolved around the placing of the Needle in an iron cylindrical pontoon, 95 feet long and with a diameter of 15 feet. It had a draft of 9 feet, a displacement of 270 tons and with internal supports at ten foot intervals and elastic packing to secure the obelisk from shocks, it was well designed to take and transport the enormous "Needle." The pontoon had a rudder at its stern and a small deck house on top of the cylinder which allowed the steering of the "Cleopatra" as the pontoon was named. The deck house could house a small crew. In addition, although it was to be towed by steamer to London there were two small sails which were designed to steady the pontoon.

By 1877, The Illustrated News could tell the public that the

obelisk of ancient Egypt, which has been left lying so long half buried in the sand at Alexandria, is now about to be made an ornament to the city of London.
There were a few, not unexpected, problems.Very rough weather enroute from Alexandria to Gibralter was sufficient reason for the Captain of the Steamship Olga to decide that it was prudent to put into Algiers for coal. After setting out again, the Olga once more ran into bad weather. On Sunday, 13 October 1877 in a force 7 to 8 gale in the Bay of Biscay, the "Cleopatra" had to be abandoned . In an attempt to rescue those on the pontoon, a boat with six crew from the mother ship was swamped and all six lost their lives. The men are commemorated on a bronze plaque attached to the foot of the needle's mounting stone. Eventually Captain Booth was able to get the Olga next to the pontoon and rescue Captain Carter and the five remaining crew aboard "Cleopatra" which was abandoned and presumed lost.

Within a few days, however, and despite a pessimistic assessment from Captain Carter, the Cleopatra was found floating comfortably in the sea some distance off Ferrol, a coastal town in northwest Spain. On Friday, the 19th of October, The Times reported the receipt of the following telegram from Lloyds.

Ferrol, Oct. 18, 10.50 a.m.

The "Fitzmaurice," steamer, from Middlesbrough for Valencia, fell in with and recovered at sea the Cleopatra's Needle recovered Cleopatra's Needle, 90 miles north of Ferrol.
Less than a month later, at 7.00 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 January 1878 in fine weather, the Cleopatra resumed its voyage to England in tow behind the paddle tug, Anglia. the great obelisk arrived in the Thames estuary six days later, as debate raged over a permanent location for the needle.

Finally, on Friday, the 15th of February, the Board of Works approved a site on the Thames Embankment at the Adelphi Steps. By the middle of September, the obelisk had been erected and within a month, the site had been cleared of all the material used in the erection of the needle. There it still stands, passed by millions of pedestrians every year of whom few, if any, know its true story.

To download a copy of James King, Cleopatra's needle : a history of the London obelisk, with an exposition of the hieroglyphics (1883), click here.

(1)For further information on Wilson and particularly his involvement with Turkish Baths, click here or go to Malcolm Shifrin's wonderful website at


Malcolm Shifrin said...

A fascinating article on a most beautifully designed site.
Erasmus Wilson, however, was more than just 'a highly successful dermatologist interested in Egyptian antiquities' being President of the Biblical Archaeology Society (and also of the College of Surgeons). As a leading dermatologist it is significant that he was also one of the first shareholders in the London & Provincial Turkish Bath Company Ltd and author of 'The Eastern, or Turkish bath', a much reprinted work. You can find Spy's image of him at

c.elliott said...

I'm writing a book on London's Egyptian connections, including a substantial section on Cleopatra's Needle, and I'd be interested to know your source for the item about John Dixon proposing the transport of the Needle by private subscription at a dinner party held by the artist Edward Goodall. I take it that this was the father of Frederick Goodall, the orientalist painter.

Chris Elliott

Tine Appelman said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! I am doing some research for a piece of historical fiction and found this very helpful.

Scribe of Light said...

For anyone interested in more detail on the history of Cleopatra's Needle, and the saga of its transport to England, R Hayward and Aubrey Noakes both wrote books, both simply called 'Cleopatra's Needles'. Hayward's published by Moorland Publishing Company 1978 and Noakes' H F & G Witherby 1962. Both long out of print, but I have covered the subject in my forthcoming book 'Egypt in England', due out in February 2012 from English Heritage Publishing. More news about the book, for those interested, on