Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle is the obelisk that stands on the Thames Embankment in London. It was transported from Egypt to London in 1877. It is one of three similar Ancient Egyptian obelisks, with the other two re-erected in Paris and New York.

The Sultan of Egypt and Sudan presented the obelisk to the British Government in 1819, in commemoration of Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and Sir Ralph Abercromby’s victory at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. However, it was not until 1877 that Cleopatra’s Needle finally arrived in the UK.

Transporting Cleopatra’s Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle was discovered in Cairo and once gifted to Britain was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, where it sat for 60 years waiting to be transported. The Needle weighed over 200 tons, which meant creating an innovative method of transportation for it.

It was encased in an iron cylinder, which was then rolled by means of levers and chains down a track into the sea. It was fitted with a deckhouse, mast, rudder and steering gear and was manned by a crew of Maltese sailors. This ‘craft’ was named Cleopatra and was to be towed to Britain by the steamship Olga. They sailed on 21 September 1877. Captain Henry Carter, who had supervised her construction, commanded the Cleopatra and Captain Booth was in command of the Olga.

Disaster at sea

The two vessels could only make seven knots and disaster struck in the Bay of Biscay when the towropes had to be cut in a violent storm. Six men from the Olga drowned in the attempt to rescue men from the Cleopatra, but finally Captain Carter and his crew were saved and the Cleopatra drifted away in the storm. It was assumed she was lost but she was later sighted by the Fitzmaurice and towed into Ferrol Harbour in Spain. From there, she was towed back to England by the paddle tug Anglia, arriving at Gravesend on 21 January 1878.

Erected in London

The obelisk was eventually erected on the Thames Embankment on 12 September 1878. The two sphinxes that sit beneath it were cast in bronze at the Ecclestone Iron Works in Pimlico in 1881. The towing ‘craft’ Cleopatra was broken up immediately after the obelisk had been removed on 6 July 1878.