The Mariner's Mirror Podcast
Freak Ships of the Nineteenth Century IV: The Cleopatra
Freak Ships of the Nineteenth Century is the title of a pamphlet written in 1966 by J. Guthrie, then an employee of the maritime classification society Lloyds Register. It was written for private circulation amongst the staff. Guthrie realised that, as the premier classification society Lloyds Register were able to produce a very good technical description of vessels, often directly from plans, reports and records of conventional ships. But this left a gap in their knowledge - 'But what of the unorthodox ships, the rebels from tradition: those monsters and freaks of the nautical world which, throughout the whole of the 19th century attained transient fame (or notoriety) before disappearing from the scene for ever?'. Guthrie's pamphlet aimed to answer that question by exploring some of the most radical nautical designs of the nineteenth century.
This episode, the last of four, looks at the unique iron vessel that was designed and built to bring 'Cleopatra's Needle' - a 3500 year-old, 224-ton, 21-metre high ancient Egyptian obelisk made of granite - from Alexandria to London, where it still can be seen on the banks of the Thames at Embankment. This is the remarkable story of how it got there.
For the Egyptians, obelisks were sacred objects for the sun god, Ra; it’s thought that the shape symbolised a single ray of sun. They were placed in pairs at the entrances of temples, so that the first and last light of day touched their peaks. The obelisk that became known as Cleopatra’s needle was made around 1450 BC, in Heliopolis in what is now a part of Cairo. It was moved to Alexandria by the Romans in 12 BC, where it remained, lying on a beach, for almost two millennia.
But in 1819, to commemorate Horatio Nelson’s great naval victory over Napoleon in 1798 at the battle of the Nile, the Sultan of Egypt presented the obelisk to the government of Great Britain….but with no suggestion as to how the British might claim their reward. In Ebay terms – this was ‘collection only’. Unsurprisingly, The obelisk stayed where it was.
Fifty-eight years later a Scottish traveller and soldier in the British army, James Alexander, heard of the story and became interested in the challenge that Cleopatra’s needle posed to a mighty maritime Empire. He convinced a wealthy and philanthropic businessman, William Wilson, to fund a project to move the 224-ton granite obelisk, 3000 miles to London – a seemingly impossible task. Enter John Dixon, a talented and energetic civil engineer from Durham, who had made his name building the first railway in China. Dixon’s solution was to make a pre-fabricated iron vessel in London; take it in pieces to Alexandria and assemble it around the obelisk. The iron tube with the obelisk nestling inside, would then be towed back to London. The journey was nearly a disaster...
To go with this audio episode we have created a video animation which explains the history of the needle, the design of the Cleopatra, and her fraught journey to London.