Cleopatra’s Needle: John Hamill traces its masonic history

Thursday, 05 June 2014

From the Nile to the Thames

One Freemason proposed the idea of presenting Cleopatra’s Needle as a gift to the British government. John Hamill explains how its eventual arrival in London was organised and paid for by another

Like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower and Big Ben, Cleopatra’s Needle is one of London’s most recognisable landmarks. It was presented to the British government in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan to commemorate the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria. But it was to lie in the sands outside Alexandria for nearly sixty years because successive British governments refused to pay the enormous costs of transporting it to London. 

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) was born in Padua. After various adventures in Italy, Prussia and Holland he arrived in England in 1803 and made his living as an entertainer. At six feet seven inches in height and with enormous strength, he was often billed as the ‘Patagonian Samson’. 

Belzoni came into contact with some of the small circle who were to become the advisers to HRH The Duke of Sussex when he became Grand Master. It is not known where Belzoni was initiated, but he entered the Royal Arch in Cambridge and the Knights Templar in Norwich. His splendid Royal Arch jewel is worn today by First Principals of the Chapter of St James, No. 2.

Uncovering the ancient

In 1815, Belzoni was persuaded by the agent of Egypt’s Turkish ruler, Pasha Mohammed Ali, to go there to try and help restore that country’s prosperity. Arriving in Cairo, he became fascinated by ancient Egypt and from 1816 to 1820 carried out excavations at Abu Simbel, Thebes, Philae, the Valley of the Kings and Fayum. 

Belzoni made many discoveries, not least the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I, making careful notes and extensive drawings of the temples, tombs and wall decorations that he discovered. He is rightly considered to be the father of modern Egyptology, but modern archaeologists would abhor his practice of removing statues, wall paintings and artefacts from his discoveries.

In 1821, Belzoni exhibited his Egyptian treasures in Piccadilly, to huge public acclaim. A narrative of his activities, published in the previous year, quickly went through three printings and was translated into French, German and Italian, while his collections were later auctioned off and bought by the British Museum. 

It was Belzoni who suggested to Pasha Mohammed Ali that the obelisk now known as Cleopatra’s Needle be presented to the British government. Belzoni organised its transportation to Alexandria but did not have the finance to move it any further. 

Masonic intervention

It was not until 1877 that the interest of another Freemason, Sir William James Erasmus Wilson (1809-1884), led to the obelisk finally making its journey to England. Wilson was a surgeon who made his name and fortune by specialising in dermatology. One of the first in this field, he wrote a number of works that became the standard textbooks on the subject. He is credited with introducing the idea that a daily bath was a simple way of remaining healthy, and was involved in the movement to provide local bath and wash houses to promote hygiene and public health. 

Elected Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Wilson served on many of its committees and was its president in 1881. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and knighted for his services to medical science and his extensive philanthropy. Wilson was much involved in Freemasonry in London and Kent.

‘The whole exercise of transporting Cleopatra’s Needle and organising its final resting place in London cost Wilson almost £10,000.’

Having heard of the obelisk, Wilson began to plan for its transportation. On the advice of engineers, it was encased in an iron tube around which a pontoon was built, complete with rudder and sails. It was to be towed by a merchant vessel, with a small crew steering it from a covered ‘bridge’ built over the tube. 

The final chapter

The journey from Cairo through the Mediterranean and out into the Atlantic was largely uneventful. However, disaster struck on entering the Bay of Biscay on 14 October 1877. A sudden storm almost overturned the pontoon, the tow lines broke and it was at the mercy of high seas. The small crew was rescued but in the attempts to retake control of the pontoon, several sailors perished. Eventually the pontoon drifted to the coast of France from where it was salvaged and reconstructed at a cost of £2,000.

The Needle was eventually towed up the Thames, and the wrangling then began as to where it should be erected. Initially it had been planned to stand the obelisk near the Houses of Parliament, but both Houses objected. Finally it was agreed that it should be erected on the new Victoria Embankment, then being constructed as a river road linking Westminster and the City of London. Wilson engaged architects to design a plinth and surroundings, to include two sphinxes, to display the obelisk. 

The foundation stone of the plinth was laid with masonic ceremonies and on 12 September 1878 the obelisk was raised. The whole exercise of transporting Cleopatra’s Needle and organising its final resting place in London cost Wilson almost £10,000.

Letters to the Editor - No. 27 Autumn 2014

Giving the needle


I was very interested in John Hamill’s excellent article, ‘From the Nile to the Thames’, on the story of the transfer of Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to the Thames Embankment. However, there are a few extra points I’d like to add to the story. 

Contrary to the usual tale, the famous queen did have something to do with the obelisk that bears her name. It was Cleopatra, and not Belzoni, who transferred the needle from Heliopolis to Alexandria to stand with its partner (now in New York’s Central Park) at the water gate of the Caesarium built by Cleopatra to honour the late Julius Caesar. 

The needle was reported as lying flat by an English traveller in the seventeenth century. The final impetus required to move it to Britain was a threat by an Italian landowner who owned the area where the needle resided – he planned to demolish the obelisk to free the site for further development. 

It was originally planned to be put in front of the Houses of Parliament, but fears about the safety of the District Line immediately below the site – rather than political squabbling – resulted in the decision to place the needle on the Embankment. 

As an interesting adjunct, when the plinth was built, several artefacts were encased beneath it, including a wooden pole found at the opening of one of the so-called ‘air shafts’ in the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Perhaps one day, carbon analysis of this piece of wood will settle the age of the pyramid once and for all.

Brian Skinner, Lodge of Fraternal Unity, No. 7330, London 


John Hamill’s interesting article on Cleopatra’s Needle brings to mind another example of Freemason Sir William James Erasmus Wilson’s generosity.

In his excellent book, Benevolence and Excellence, Alan Scadding states that in 1871 Dr Erasmus Wilson offered to the Royal Medical Benevolent College to build a house for the headmaster’s family and forty scholars.

Thus was established in 1873 Wilson House, which ran almost independently of the college for a period – the headmaster charging non-medical parents higher fees for their sons who would be educated ‘under the headmaster’s special eye’. 

In 1896, the Royal Medical Benevolent College changed its name to Epsom College and today, Wilson House stands in its original building as a boarding house for girls and a fully integrated part of Epsom College.

The building stands on the Wilson terrace at the top of Wilson Steps, which access Wilson Pitch.

Peter Dodd, Old Epsomian Lodge, No. 3561, London

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