Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 3: where Cleopatra’s Needle might have stood

Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 3: where Cleopatra’s Needle might have stood

There are three things you need to know about Cleopatra’s Needle. First, it has nothing to do with Cleopatra. Second, it’s not a needle. Third, it was never intended to be on the Embankment, where it is now.

It is an obelisk dedicated to the Sun God made during the reign of Thutmose III, a Pharaoh who lived over 1,000 years before Cleopatra. It was intended to be located in Parliament Square, where a full size wooden replica was erected to gauge what it would look like there. But that plan fell through when the builders of the District Line demanded that the government take out insurance in case it collapsed on to the railway beneath. 

At 3,500 years old, Cleopatra’s Needle is easily the most ancient visible monument in London. It is one of two granite obelisks, both 68 feet high. Its “twin” stands in Central Park, New York and a third, unrelated to the other two, is in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

It was presented to the UK in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, to commemorate the victories of Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801 and Sir Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Maybe it should have been called Nelson’s Column.

Vic Keegan is a former leader writer for the Guardian and now the author of and a book of poems of the same name. Previous instalments of his Lost London series are here and here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London


  1. Roger Griffiths says:

    I suspect Cleo’s Needle may have originally been erected further upstream and further away from the river – if you look on Google-Earth historical view for 1945, the ‘tag’ for Cleo’s Needle is shown in the current location, but it appears to be in the mud – nothing constructed at all. One reason for my interest is that I have a painting (by my GG-Uncle, who was a well known painter) that shows what can only be Cleo’s Needle well to the North of where it currently stands. I would be very grateful if you could shed some light on this!

      1. Roger Griffiths says:

        Sorry, only just saw this – thanks for your interest!
        If you would e-mail me your e-mail address I’ll happily send it, of course!
        A little more info: the artist was Hely Smith (Hely Augustus Morton Smith) who is readily ‘googlable’, he died in 1941 so before Waterloo Bridge was reconstructed. I suspect the painting was done around the turn of the century. It’s actually a working sketch, unsigned, but no question in my mind that it is his work.
        I have also worked out another idea, that its position is a matter of Artistic Licence, I’ll explain when I send you the pic!

  2. Roger Griffiths says:

    ?? I left further comment but it seems to have vanished!

    I would be very happy to e-mail a photo of the pic to you if you give me an address. I will put in my details below.
    I also have quite a few other paintings by the same artist (Hely Smith – you can find him on the net, he was a ‘serious’ artist) showing the pool of London – Limehouse Reach, Tower Bridge, etc etc – which may (or may not!) interest you too, and a fabulous oil painting of a barge at Whitchurch-on-Thames in deep winter snow. One of Limehouse Reach is dated 1924 (very few of his paintings had a date or any other info) and there are others that appear to have been done at about the same time, and I am pretty sure the barge painting would have been Jan or Feb 1895.

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