Today (September 12) in London History – Cleopatra’s Needle

September 12th, 1878 – Cleopatra’s Needle’s first day in its new home there on the Thames Embankment. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It looks down on us from across 35 centuries. It’s London’s oldest outdoor monument. It’s Cleopatra’s Needle. And today marks the 144th year it’s stood amid the alien corn there beside the Thames. The alien corn line is of course from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. Perhaps the self-same song that found a path through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn. 

“Stood in tears” – homesick – well, I don’t know about that. I think an earlier phrase in Keats’ poem perhaps has more applicability to Cleopatra’s Needle: “thou wast not born for death” 

Anyway, Thirty-five centuries, that’s a long innings – that’s a lot of biography, a lot of history, a lot of story. 

It’s got everything I like in a London story. It’s time-honoured. It’s fact-rich. It’s full of drama. It’s got great characters.

So let’s work back from that|September 12th 1878 ceremony there on the Thames Embankment, the housewarming, as it were, to welcome Cleopatra’s Needle to its new home there on the Thames Embankment.

Some hard facts first. The obelisk is 18 metres high and weighs 186 tonnes. The original plan was to erect it in front of the Houses of Parliament but there was a subsistence problem with that proposed parliamentary site. The second location also got the thumbs down. There’d been a proposal to put it in Embankment Gardens. But then someone pointed out that the thing weighed 186 tonnes and the Circle and District Line was directly underneath the proposed site. Underground trains rumbling through there, a lot of vibrations, what if something went badly wrong and the site caved in? You’ve got a crushed carriage, no end of dead and maimed passengers.

So, in the end, they plumped for the water’s edge, where the obelisk has stood ever since. And I think that gets it right – and not solely for safety reasons. The obelisk was cut from the quarries of Aswan and in about 1475 BC, it was transported down the Nile to be erected at Heliopolis. Fifteen centuries later, on orders of the Roman emperor Augustus, it was moved to Alexandria. There’s a tradition – probably unfounded – that it was intended to be a memorial to a son that came of the union of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. 

But the main point is it’s nice to think that Cleopatra’s Needle – the Needle of course pre-dated Cleopatra by many centuries – it’s nice to think that it’s got associations – so to speak – with two of the greatest rivers in world history.

And as for that name – Cleopatra’s Needle – the Cleopatra we know comes to us of course from Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare portrays her as deeply erotic. And given how phallic the obelisk, well, you’ll get my drift…

Anyway, for centuries the obelisk stood in Alexandria before it finally toppled into the sands. 

Its British connection goes back to 1819. The Turkish viceroy of Egypt Muhammad Ali – yes, that was his name – whether he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee I haven’t a clue – anyway, Muhammad Ali presented it to the British in 1819. Problem was how to get it from Egypt to London. It wasn’t just going along a river or going overland – getting it here involved a sea-crossing. Many thought, engineering-wise, it wasn’t doable. Or if it was, the game wasn’t worth the candle. They got there in the end, though. Got Cleopatra’s Needle here. An English engineer – one John Dixon – built an iron cylindrical pontoon in which the obelisk was towed out to sea off Alexandria in September 1877.

Alas, there was a steep human price that was paid for that remarkable transportation operation. In the Bay of Biscay the ship was hit by a powerful gale. Six seamen drowned. Their names are immortalised on a plaque that was put up at a later date on the Thames side of the obelisk. The force of the storm nearly did for the obelisk as well but in the end the surviving members of the crew were able to stabilise it, keep it afloat. It was towed into a Spanish port until the storm passed. It eventually reached London in January of 1878.

Three final points. There’s a joke – might be something to it – that the workmen had a long liquid lunch before they got around to putting the sphinxes in place. The pair of sphinxes at its base. They’re supposed to be guarding the obelisk. But they’re facing the wrong way to be guarding. They should be looking outward. Instead they’re facing the Needle. Making it child’s play for an enemy to sneak up on them.

Secondly, look closely at the pedestal of the obelisk, the bases of the sphinxes and the right-hand sphinx – open your eyes there and you’ll see those components are badly scarred. That’s shrapnel damage from a bombs away effort of a German airplane in World War I.

Best of all, though, the time machine enclosed in the core of the obelisk’s pedestal and supports that was buried beneath the obelisk. The time machine was two large earthenware jars that held – and still hold, presumably – a Standard foot and pound, a bronze model of the obelisk, 1/2 inch scale to the foot, copies of Engineering magazine (printed on vellum, with plans of the various arrangements and details employed in erecting and transporting the obelisk, together with its complete history, jars of Doulton ware, a piece of the obelisk stone, a complete set of British coinage, including an Empress of India rupee; a parchment copy of a translation of the obelisk’s hieroglyphics, a portrait of Queen Victoria, bibles in various languages, Bradshaw’s railway guide, Mappin’s shilling razor, a case of cigars, pipes, a box of hairpins and sundry articles of female adornment (that was how the 1878 press put it), an Alexandra feeding bottle (wonder what that was) and children’s toys, a hydraulic jack as used in raising the obelisk, wire ropes and specimens of submarine cables, a map of London – what I wouldn’t give to see that – a London Directory, a two foot rule, copies of the day’s newspapers, Whitaker’s Almanac and photographs of a dozen pretty Englishwomen.  What a find, what a treasure trove that’s going to be many centuries in the future. 

And on that happy note, a Today in London recommendation. 

An obvious one – but maybe not completely obvious.  Yes, the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum. That you knew about. It’s world-famous. But did you know about special exhibition they’ve got coming up – it opens on October 13th. It’s called Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt. That’s got not to be missed written all over it.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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