In Volume 1 of my book on the District Railway (page 36), I referred to the proposal to plant the Egyptian obelisk known (though quite wrongly) as Cleopatra’s Needle in Parliament Square. This caused the District Railway to protest, as much of the monument would have been located immediately above its railway covered way, which runs diagonally across the square between Broad Sanctuary and Bridge Street. I mentioned that the District feared the tremendous weight would be a problem and that the company required a perpetual indemnity against any accident in which the monument was implicated. This could not be done. I mentioned that ‘a statue of Lord Palmerston had already presented difficulties when erected in Parliament Square in January 1876 and the base had to be supported on girders as it was partly located above the railway’. After much debate, the Egyptian monument was located elsewhere.

Space prevented further elaboration of this but I am able to add to the story here.

The Monument

The ‘Needle’ was carved in Egypt for the Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC, making it almost 3,500 years old. It was one of three similar monuments extracted from Egypt during the nineteenth century, one ending up in London and the other two in Paris (Place de la Concorde) and New York (Central Park). The London one was presented to the British in 1820 by Mehmet Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt at that time (he was actually Macedonian). However, the British government was not disposed to bear the enormous cost of moving it, which became a mounting embarrassment. It was not until private individuals agreed to fund the move half a century later when anything was actually done.

This was not the monument’s first move. The London and New York monuments stood as a pair in front of the portico of the great temple of Heliopolis, once a great City but now part of the suburbs of Cairo. From Heliopolis the two obelisks were removed to Alexandria in 13-12 B.C., as shown by inscriptions on the claw of one of the bronze crabs placed by the Romans under the corners of the obelisks when they set them up in Alexandria nearly 17 years after the death of Cleopatra. Two of these are preserved in New York and bear inscriptions describing their move. The association of the obelisks with the name Cleopatra has been the subject of debate. Mr (later Sir) Erasmus Wilson, to whom much of the credit must be awarded for arranging to transport the British obelisk to London, assumes that the association of Cleopatra's name with the two obelisks represents the popularity of the queen and the affectionate regard of her subjects, rather than any participation of herself in their transport or erection, this having occurred so long after her death. However it is relevant that the re-erected obelisks were set up in the Caesarium, a temple commemorating Julius Caesar in Alexandra built by Cleopatra in 12 B.C. (in the reign of Augustus) and which may be the cause of the association. It was here where one of the obelisks was toppled by an earthquake in 1303 and covered over by sand, effectively preserving the inscriptions which would otherwise have been eroded by weathering. This is the obelisk that came to London. The obelisk still standing after the earthquake was the one that went to New York. The Paris one came from Luxor.

Moving the Obelisk

A very long, thin, old and extremely heavy object was not an easy thing to move. It was decided to move it by sea in a specially built waterproof container that would float, allowing it to be towed by a ship.

It was not until General James Alexander generated a desire to recover the obelisk in the 1870s that agreement to meeting the £10,000 cost of shipment was made through the generosity of William Wilson, a famous anatomist, with the technical details arranged by John Dixon, an engineer. After digging the obelisk out of the sand it was placed in a container, in fact an iron cylinder 92ft long and 16ft in diameter. This was equipped with a sea-going stem and stern, keels, rudder, deckhouse and mast, producing, in effect, a floating pontoon. This was to be hauled by a steam ship called the Olga. The journey to Britain set out from Alexandria on 21st September 1877 was far from uneventful and during a storm off the bay of Biscay the load got out of control with the loss of six lives. After recovery by another vessel and repairs in Spain, another ship (the paddle tug Anglia) completed the journey on arrival at Gravesend on 21st January 1878.

The Illustrated London News reported:

A telegram from the Queen, addressed to Mr. Dixon, was received at Gravesend, saying that her Majesty was much gratified at hearing of the safe arrival of the Needle. After stopping two hours at Gravesend the Anglia towed the Cleopatra up the river to Blackwall. She was cheered by the people who crowded the wharves and piers, and the boys of the Chichester training-ship manned yards to salute her. A berth in the East India Export Dock had been offered by the East and West India Dock Company. Here the Cleopatra was safely placed, at a quarter before four on Monday afternoon. She is to be brought up to the Victoria Thames Embankment at Westminster, where apparatus will be provided for raising the obelisk when divested of its iron case, and for erecting it in the site finally approved (which was still not then known).

On Saturday 9th February, the obelisk was shifted from the docks by the river tug Era, but the mast on the obelisk's container had to be removed before it attempted movement beneath the Thames bridges. Two other tugs, the Trojan and Ajax were used to keep the load steady so that it would not get out of control. By this means it was brought up to Westminster Bridge and moored off the Surrey side near St Thomas' Hospital, opposite the Palace of Westminster. In this state it was available to be viewed by the public, an iron plate being removed from the top surface so people could vire the obelisk.

Cleopatra at Westminster 

What to do with it

Once the monument was on its way, the problem arose as to what to do with it. Various suggestions were made but the reality was that it was extraordinarily heavy and very tall, and therefore needed an appropriate setting. Contemporary descriptions explain that it was:

68 ft. 5½ in. long, and its greatest breadth at the base is 7 ft. 10½ in. on two opposite sides, and 7 ft. 5 in. the other two sides, the base not presenting a perfect square, but a perfect rectangular figure. The breadth, as it ascends, gradually diminishes to within 7 ft. or 8 ft. of the top, where it tapers off into a slender pyramid, which was perhaps once covered with bronze or gold. The weight of the obelisk is 186 tons, and its solid measurement is 2529 cubic feet.

One of the locations suggested was Parliament Square, an important location within which the column might be presented in an appropriate setting. The better location for this was near the centre, and a full-size wooden model was erected at this location been put up there, during the last few weeks, to show the effect. Our Illustrations will help the reader at a distance from London to judge of this disputed question, which must, however, be decided finally by her Majesty’s Government. It is said that the First Commissioner of Works, to whose department it belongs, has referred it to the Prime Minister, and Lord Beaconsfield is now considering the point; but there will be plenty of time before we get the obelisk safely moored alongside the Thames Embankment.

The District Railway had constructed its line in a robust fashion but had not expected the entirely open route across the square to be exposed to very large point loads. Obviously works could be undertaken (with some inconvenience) to reinforce the tunnel at this point but the requirement for an indemnity for accommodating this indulgence was hardly unreasonable in the circumstances, but nobody would give one.

To gauge public and official opinion, a wooden model of the obelisk, equal to it in size, was erected to show the effect. The Illustrated London News observes: ‘The view presented in the Engraving which forms our Extra Supplement, including portions of the Abbey north front and of the Houses of Parliament, will be acceptable to readers at a distance from London.’

Two contemporary engraved images showing the model are shown here. The obelisk is directly above the District Railway tunnel.

Needle Mock Up and clock tower Model outside parliament

The Parliament Square site was preferred by Wilson and Dixon. Other locations considered included the Thames Embankment opposite Adelphi Terrace and the lower end of St James' Park, opposite Horseguards Parade. This was the site preferred by the benefactor Erasmus Wilson and by General Gordon, who stirred up the need to transport the obelisk in the first place. In February 1878 it was arranged that the wooden model that had previously stood in Parliament Square would be re-erected on the Embankment to gauge opinion.

For some reason the St James' Park site, which would perhaps have displayed the obelisk at its best, without contaminating the view with surrounding buildings, lost favour and the Embankment site was selected. This required considerable work to widen the Embankment wall to carry the weight of the monument and provide facilities to view each side.

By early August 1878 the obelisk had been poved to a point near its final resting place near Adelphi Terrace, though it was still horizontal. The iron container had by this time been dismantled and the monument rested upon a vast wooden trestle. The work of raising it was expected to begin within a weeks or so and take several weeks. The idea was to place a vast iron strap around the monument and raise it in 1ft stages to about half its final height using hydraulic jacks. Vast trunnions attached near the centre of gravity would then be used to support the ediface while it was rotated, using the trunnions, to a to the vertical, immediately above its final resting place. It would then be lowered into position and made secure. The column was to be situated on a vast plinth, of equal weight to the column. While the column was lying prostrate, it was possible to allow the authorities controlling the South Kensington (later V&A) Museum to take a cast for research purposes.

The monument was raised to its vertical position on Thursday 12th September 1878 by raising it to a horizonatal height 50ft above the base and then rotating it so the bottom swung down to a point just above the base, an operation that took 45 minutes. The column was temporarily supported overnight before being lowered into its final position on Friday morning. The plinth was later completed by adding a final row of granite around the top, encasing the base of the column. The ediface was later completed by the addition of bronze sphinxes either side, one of which was injured by bomb damage during the Second World War, which also damaged one face of the column.

Erecting the Obelisk

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