Cleopatra’s Needle in Parliament Square (as it nearly was)
OF ALL the monuments in London, Cleopatra‘s Needle is the most misnamed and misplaced. It is not a needle, it is an obelisk. And it has nothing to do with Cleopatra as it predates her existence by over 1000 years. If anything it should be called Nelson’s Column as it was in honour of his victories that it was given to George lV by a local Egyptian ruler. By all intents it should have been erected in Parliament Square, the site favoured by John Dixon the distinguished engineer who had transported it from Alexandria though many other sites were in contention including the British Museum and St James Park.
Dixon actually erected a full sized wooden replica of the obelisk in Parliament Square, but to no avail. It was given to Britain in 1819 but, incredibly, it was nearly 60 years before it was actually brought from Egypt to the UK and only then after a hazardous sea journey during which six people died trying to save it when it was cast adrift from the mothership towing it during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. During the period between the bestowing of the gift and its delivery, something happened. The railways were invented and by the time the obelisk had arrived in London the District Line was running under Parliament Square prompting fears that the obelisk would collapse on top of it if placed there. Eventually, a resting place was found and on Friday, September 13, 1878 the needle was finally erected at the Adelphi Steps on the Victoria Embankment. A pair of earthenware jars were embedded in the base of the needle containing a variety of Victorian objects from photographs of “a dozen pretty English women” to 10 daily newspapers. It is quite possible that these could have included the Manchester Guardian of fond memory for me – and an extra reminder of times past each time I pass by this extraordinary obelisk.