This Day in History – September 12th, 1878

CleoNeedleDespite already already being over a thousand years old during the reign of Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, an ancient obelisk was dubbed “Cleopatra’s Needle” when Muhammad Ali, the then leader of Egypt and Sudan, gifted one to Britain in 1819 in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Initially the British government had to politely decline the gift due to the cost of shipping the 224 tons relic from Egypt  to London, so the obelisk remained in Alexandria until 1877. It was distinguished anatomist and dermatologist Sir William James Erasmus Wilson who funded its shipping to London at the cost of £10,000 (a very considerable sum in those days). The “needle” was dug out of the sand in which it had been buried for nearly 2,000 years and was encased in a great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter, designed by the engineer John Dixon and dubbed Cleopatra, to be commanded by Captain Carter.  The Cleopatra cylinder had a vertical stem and stern, a rudder, two bilge keels, a mast for balancing sails, and a deck house. This acted as a floating pontoon which was to be towed to London by the ship Olga, commanded by Captain Booth.

Sailing the Cleopatra was fraught with challenges. On October 14th, 1877 a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused the pontoon to roll and break away from the Olga. A crew of six volunteers left the Olga in a rescue boat to secure the Cleopatrabut the boat capsized and took all six with it; the six are commemorated by a bronze plaque at the foot of Cleopatra’s Needle in London. Captain Booth managed to rescue the crew aboard the Cleopatrabut he was unable to secure the cylinder and reported it “abandoned and sinking.” The Cleopatra, however, did not sink. The pontoon drifted in the bay until found by Spanish trawlers and retrieved by the Glasgow steamer Fitzmaurice who transported it to Ferrol in Spain for repairs. The William Watkins Ltd paddle tug Anglia under the command of Captain David Glue was then commissioned to tow the Cleopatra back to the River Thames in London, arriving on January 21st, 1878.


Initially the needle was going to reside outside the Houses of Parliament and a wooden model of the obelisk had been placed outside the government house, but by the time it arrived in London this location had been rejected and instead the needle was to be erected in its now home on the Victoria Embankment further down the River Thames. 59 years after being presented to Britain as a gift, “Cleopatra’s Needle” was finally erected on September 12th, 1878.

Cleopatra's Needle in London - old photograph

On erection of the obelisk, a time capsule was concealed in the front part of the pedestal, it contained : A set of 12 photographs of the best looking English women of the day, a box of hairpins, a box of cigars, several tobacco pipes, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, some children’s toys, a shilling razor, a hydraulic jack and some samples of the cable used in erection, a 3′ bronze model of the monument, a complete set of British coins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a written history of the strange tale of the transport of the monument, plans on vellum, a translation of the inscriptions, copies of the bible in several languages, a copy of John 3:16 in 215 languages, a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers.

Similar obelisks were also gifted from Egypt to France and the United States; they stand in Paris and New York.

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