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The Strange Story of the Transportation of Cleopatra’s Needle


One of the most interesting parts of writing and researching about the Isle of Dogs is that  you often come across connections which are no means obvious.  Recently  I came across a newspaper report about Cleopatra’s Needle which illustrates this point.

For well over a hundred years, Cleopatra’s Needle has been one of London’s landmarks on the Embankment  but the story of how it was transported to London is fascinating and has a number of connections to the Isle of Dogs.

Cleopatra’s Needle is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk made during the reign of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III in around 1450 BC. The obelisk was moved to Alexandria by the Romans in 12 BC, where eventually it toppled over and remained until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson sponsored its transportation to London from Alexandria at a cost of some £10,000.

The question of transportation was a problem, it was too expensive to transfer by land and the British Government did not want to get involved in any way. The solution  proposed by engineer John Dixon was to encase the obelisk in great iron cylinder, 92 feet (28 m) long and 16 feet (4.9 m) in diameter.

needle ship

The creation of the iron cylinder was undertaken by Thames Ironworks in Blackwall who specialised in unusual constructions. Somewhat bizarrely on the top of the cylinder was a deck house, masts and a small set of sails. The cylinder named The Cleopatra was transported to Alexandria in parts and reassembled on the beach  under the supervision of John Dixon and Captain Henry Carter who was to command the ‘ship’ whilst being towed behind a steamship.


Eventually the obelisk was encased in the cylinder and attached to the steamship Olga for its journey to London, all went well until 14th October 1877, when a storm in the Bay of Biscay caused the cylinder to start rolling, The Olga sent out a rescue boat with six crew, but the boat capsized and all six crew were lost.  Captain Carter and the five crew members aboard the Cleopatra were eventually rescued, but the cylinder was feared to have sunk. However these fears were unfounded and the cylinder was found and was taken to Ferrol in Spain. Unfortunately this was not the end of the problem because over £2,000 salvage had to be paid before the journey could be continued.

The money was eventually paid and the William Watkins owned paddle tug Anglia (which was also built at Thames Ironworks) departed Millwall to travel to Ferrol to  tow the cylinder back to the Thames. Thankfully this journey was without incident and the tug and the cylinder arrived in the Thames estuary on 21 January 1878.

A newspaper report from The Times tells the next part of the story.

CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLE. (The Times, January .) The Cleopatra with the Alexandrian obelisk on board was safety moored on Monday afternoon in the East India Docks. Every preparation was made for her reception by Mr  Aslett, superintendent of the East India Docks ; Sir William Baynes, chairman of the East and West India Dock Company; Captains Marrable and J. Hales Dutton, dock masters; and Colonel du Plat Tayior, secretary of the dock company. It was resolved to give her the ‘railway berth,’ the best in the whole dock, just opposite the superintendent’s office. There was a great crowd at Blackwall, and much enthusiasm was evinced- as the afternoon tide approached high-water point, the time for which, According to the notification at the dock gates, was 3-35. Captain Saxby had foretold that it was to have been a very high tide, but it was much checked by a south-westerly wind. It was said that the Anglia, with the Cleopatra in tow, had left Gravesend at half-past twelve, an announcement which timed out to have been a little premature, as the start thenue was not made until 1. However, not long after  the Anglia, with the Needle-ship in her wake, was seen from the Blackwall Railway Pier steadily approaching. She is an iron steam tug of 140 horsepower, and has three funnels, painted black, with a red band in the middle, and hoists a red flag marked W, like all those of the fleet to which she belongs. The fleet numbers a score of these powerful iron vessels, which must not be confounded with ordinary river and coasting tugs, but often make ocean voyages, as far, for instance, as St. Helena. The form of the floating cylinder with parallel pinched ends need not be again described. She is painted buff down to her water-line, and red beneath, carrying two red flags, of which the upper one bears her name ‘Cleopatra,” the lower being a simple British merchant’s ensign. Owing to the number of vessels leaving the docks, it was close upon three before the Anglia and the Cleopatra approached the dock gates, and it was a quarter to 4 before the obelisk ship was within them. By this time the Anglia had resigned her charge  to the care of the dock company’s tug Mosquito,which worked the Cleopatra safely and comfortably through the narrow entrance, and saw her to her berth, which, however, was not reached till nearly 5. Meanwhile the crowds continued to swell, and the excitement was very great. Order was admirably preserved, thanks to the arrangements of Captain Sheppey, the superintendent of the East and West India Dock Police.

So the Cleopatra’s Needle’s first home in London was East India Docks until the decision was made where to erect it, The Palace of Westminster, St James Park and the British Museum were some of the suggestions but eventually the Embankment was chosen and well over 100 years later is where it still remains.