Freak Ships of the Nineteenth Century IV: The Cleopatra

December 2022

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.

To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Andrew Choong Han Lin, a curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

  • View The Transcription

     

    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Rresearch in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. Today is episode four of our mini series called freak ships of the 19th century. Now you will have learned from previous episodes that this series is based on a fabulous pamphlet that was written in 1966 by a chap called Jay Guthrie, who worked for Lloyd’s Register and created this booklet, as it says on the title page, for private circulation amongst the staff only. It presents what it describes as unorthodox ships, rebels from tradition and freaks of the nautical world which throughout the whole of the 19th century attained transient fame or notoriety before disappearing from the scene forever. Episode one was on monitors,. episode two was on circular ships, episode three on cigar ships, and today we are exploring a remarkable vessel that has its own dedicated section in the pamphlet, a vessel called Cleopatra. Let’s start as always by hearing a little about what Mr. Guthrie himself has to say about it.

     

    Jay Guthrie 

    We have all heard the joke about making a man to fit the suit. But the Cleopatra is one of the very few vessels designed for one particular cargo only and unique in that she was built around this cargo. Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames Embankment was presented to the British government by Muhammad Ali in 1819. But owing to its enormous size and weight, 69 feet and 180 tonnes, nobody could think of a way of getting it to England, and it remained in the sand at Alexandria, where it had lain for the last 3400 years, for another 60 years, until John Dixon, a consulting engineer, was commissioned to transport it to its present location on the no delivery no pay basis. A vessel was accordingly built at the Thames Iron Works in 1877, dismantled and shipped out to Egypt in pieces. For reasons which will be apparent later the hull had to be truly cylindrical, but was flattened out fore and aft in the vertical plane to a chisel edge, the after end being fitted with a rudder. The requirements were that she should be as light as possible, with ample strength to support the obelisk when lying aground, to be a good sea boat easily towed and able to shift for herself should the hawswer be slipped, which in fact did occur. For this she would require crew accommodation, steering gear, masts and sails, anchor, pumps, lights, stores etcetera. Her  length was 92 feet, the diameter 15 feet. This hull  was subdivided into eight compartments by seven steel strength bulkheads, with openings to allow the obelisk to be supported by spring beams of timber. The vessel weighed 60 tonnes when completed.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Now of course, we are never short of ambition on the Mariners Mirror podcast. So we decided to visualise what on earth this vessel looked like,

     

    Sam Willis 

    and we have created a really splendid animation, which for the very first time shows how the Cleopatra was built on the banks of the Nile, and then explores her travel journey back all those thousands of miles to London. You can find that on the Mariners Mirror podcasts YouTube channel, so please do look it up. As for our podcast listeners, well I determined to find out as much as I could about the vessel from a modern historian. And I turned to Andrew  Choong Han Lin, curator of ship plans and technical records at the National Maritime Museum in London.  As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the excellent, engaging and entertaining Andrew. Andrew, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Hello, Sam. Good to see you again. And thank you very much for another opportunity to speak to you this morning.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So we are back on the subject of freak ships, which I’ve been hugely enjoying, and in this wonderful little pamphlet that we found in the archives of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation there is a chapter on the Cleopatra, and you said that you might be able to help me understand what on earth is going on with this remarkable vessel?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Well, I shall certainly do my best because she is a very, very interesting ship. And she’s also a little bit of a mystery because there was only one of her ever built. She was built for a very specific purpose and unfortunately her career was incredibly short. And she did not survive very long after her triumphal return to Britain. So in fact, I think she was in service probably a bit less than a year.

     

    Sam Willis 

    All right, well, let’s go back to the beginning and find out what’s going on here. Let’s start with Cleopatra’s Needle. What was it? What is it?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    It is an enormous monument, which was originally located in the ancient city of Alexandria, near the mouth of the Nile. And it was rather strangely gifted to the people and government of Great Britain by Mehmet Ali, who was the ruler of Egypt at the time. Now, the Albanian born Muhammad Ali doesn’t seem to have been terribly interested in the history of the nation he ruled, except insofar as it was a great diplomatic and political tool that he could give away to buy favours. So in 1819, he gave this this marvellous bit of ancient architecture to Britain. But when one looks at what this thing actually was, you’d almost think we were being set an intelligence test and

     

    Sam Willis 

    very good, a bit of a cursed gift. I thought that as well. Here is an enormous granite column, thank you.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Yes,  just to put my remark into context there, this thing was just under 70 feet in height, and it weighed about 180 tonnes. And in 1819 that was a bit of a tall order, you didn’t just load something like this onto a ship, and send it on its merry way to Britain. I mean, we didn’t have any ships that would be capable of carrying such a thing, not without chopping it up, and one really wouldn’t want to do that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, even the name,  Cleopatra’s Needle, that’s not as straightforward as you might suspect, because  as far as I can work out it’s much much older than the reign of Cleopatra.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Yes,  it is In fact.  I am not an Egyptologist so a lot of its history is very, very murky to me. But the association with Cleopatra seems to have become one that’s become fixed in the minds of the British people, especially as the monument still graces the Thames Embankment.  We wouldn’t know it by any other name and probably not by any other association, even if you did have a friendly Egyptologist come along and try to explain it to you.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, well, it’s a couple of thousand years before Cleopatra I think. Cleopatra then had it moved to Alexandria. So let’s get back to 1819. There were many layers of history here. It’s given as a gift, but then nothing happens for a while.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    No, not for about 60 years. We were terribly grateful to Mehmet Ali, but we unfortunately had to leave his generous gift lying in the sand for over half a century until we were able to start coming to grips with how to move it. And then in the mid  1870s plans were put in motion and a consulting engineer by the name of John Dixon believed that he had come up with a solution for transporting Cleopatra’s Needle intact by sea from Egypt to Britain. And to do this he came up with a really, really ingenious craft, which was of course to be given the name Cleopatra. So this outlandish thing was a cylinder, somewhat over 90 feet in length and 15 foot diameter as I suppose you could describe it, as it was pinched off at the end. So you had a chisel shaped, very blunt, rather ugly looking bow and stern, and a rudder attachment. And now he realised the thing would have to be supervised on the voyage. This was not simply a sort of dumb barge he was building, so he had to provide accommodation for some sort of minimal crew. And he had to ensure that if the worst came to the worst, everyone had enough experience of towing heavy vessels like this to know that chances are your tow would part. So she had to be able to look after herself for a limited period of time, and that meant including a basic sailing rig, and also enough by way of simple things like food and oil lamps to ensure that the crew would be able to look after themselves until they were rescued. So all these considerations went into the creation of this thing, which was quite unlike anything that had been seen before. And I don’t think anything after it has really quite resembled it. But the real ingenuity, you may want to come into this later, is that the ship was constructed in Britain, insofar as the component pieces were made in Britain. But his vision was that he would would almost move the mountain to Muhammad by taking the pieces out to Egypt and assembling the hull around Cleopatra’s Needle.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Ah, a flat pack ship.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    A flat pack ship indeed. Yes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Very good. And whereabouts in England was it made? Do we know where these pieces were put together?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Very close to where I am at the moment, it was Thames Ironworks, probably London’s most famous shipbuilder at the time; they were based on the Isle of Dogs. And they had a long track record of building vessels that were both either very modern or quite ingenious. And they were up to the challenge of constructing this thing. They were Dixon’s best option on the Thames so they were the ones who put all these pieces together. And it was quite an easy job for them at the end of the day, because rather terrifyingly for a vessel that was meant to carry a 180 tons stone monument the  vessel was very lightly constructed.  We’re looking at plating that varied between three eighths of an inch and seven sixteenths of an inch in  thickness. So work was steel and it was strong, it was very, very light.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, and I’m wondering about so many aspects of this, I suppose they’d built cigar ships before, so building something in that shape was not that unusual.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    No, we have had  the things like the Ross Winan’s cigar ship and various other inspirational ships and Dixon would have known about these. But I think for him personally and for Thames Iron Works this was slightly new ground they were breaking.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, so they take this vessel out in pieces to Egypt and then somehow put it together around the monument.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Yes, so the cunning plan was because the monument was not that far from the sea., so while the bits of the Cleopatra were being unloaded, the Needle was jacked up and oriented in a certain direction. And once it was clear of the sand the hull was very slowly constructed around it.  But the final bit of ingenuity once the hull  was completed, the superstructure was not put on immediately, they still had to get her down the beach into the sea. And Dixon’s ingenious method of dealing with this was to allow for wooden bands to be fitted around the stress points, I think they’re called air points in engineering lingo of the hull, to support the weight and allow her to roll. So once the hull was completed they rolled it down the beach, sideways into the water

     

    Sam Willis 

    and crossed their fingers.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    And crossed their fingers. Now, luckily, Dixon seems to have been quite a competent fellow when it came to these sorts of things, and he’d worked out the stability, he’d worked out the packing, all the maths had been done, but as you say, they all cross their fingers as this thing was rolled down into the water. She floated upright thank goodness, which then meant that they could then add on the superstructure and the masts and all the rest of it. But there was one hairy moment;  I’m sure they had checked the beach before they began rolling her but the hull was punctured by a rock on the way down, so she had to be towed to Alexandria to have the hull patched before she could actually set off.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wow, it might have been incredibly stressful.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Especially for Dixon because he had been engaged on a no success, no payment contract. Yes. So

     

    Sam Willis 

    Wow

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    He absolutely had to get this thing to Britain one way or another.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Gosh, so right, well, they patch the hull, what happened next?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    So in the summer of 1877, the ship leaves Alexandria towed by a tug called the Olga.  And for the first part of the voyage, everything goes well, the weather in the Mediterranean’s calm, everything’s lovely, the six man crew of the Cleopatra are quite happy where they are. Things change once they pass the Straits of Gibraltar and get into the Bay of Biscay, which of course is absolutely notorious for its horrendous weather. And unfortunately they are caught in very very foul weather indeed.  As expected in those conditions, the tow cable parted, and there was an extremely hairy period where the the the six man crew of the Cleopatra were trapped on their vessel, and the tug couldn’t reach them because conditions were so bad and the captain of the tug, Captain Booth, in the end called for six of his men to volunteer to row over and try and fetch the crew of the Cleopatra, and with the greatest of irony the volunteers didn’t make it, they drowned, but the crew of the Cleopatra were able to escape when the Olga was brought alongside; it must have been very impressive seamanship. But they had no choice but to abandon the Cleopatra because they had enough problems of their own. And so Cleopatra’s Needle was left drifting in in the Bay of Biscay for a while until she was sighted a  few days later by another ship in fairly good condition.  But that ship I believe was not able to immediately take her under tow, they weren’t in a position to do so, so more ships had to go out to try and find her. And in the end she was located and was  brought back into the Spanish port of Ferrol for repairs.

     

    Sam Willis 

    They literally found a needle in a haystack.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    They found a needle in a haystack.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I mean, how unbelievable. They actually they just found it adrift in Biscay somewhere.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Yes, completely unharmed. I mean, despite the terrible conditions she had been subjected to, she was still afloat, she was upright,  she might have lost a bit of her mast and rigging, but the hull was intact.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Do you know what, I think that’s a really interesting moment in this story, because I suspect  surely she would have lost some of her superstructure, but without the superstructure she would have been almost invisible, you know, floating so close to the waterline. So there must have been a stump of a mast or something, something that could have been seen from some way away I expect survived?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    I think so. And also, because again it’s the Bay of Biscay. There must have been some pretty eagle eyed lookouts on the ship to have actually spotted this thing. Because 90 feet sounds a lot, but when you’re out in the middle of the ocean that’s not a very large craft at all.

     

    Sam Willis 

    No, no. Astonishing.  So they find her and then  send another vessel out to tow her in.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Yes, so they eventually managed to establish a tow and bring her into the port of Ferrol where necessary repairs are carried out, effectively restoring her to the state she was in when she set out from Alexandria. And at long last after a final bit of a voyage which thankfully, is not so eventful, she gets to Britain in January 1878. So it’s been a bit of an epic voyage, but she finally makes it. And Cleopatra’s Needle is then installed on the Embankment.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, it’s a wonderful story, isn’t it? There are so many different bits of this I want to know more about; I particularly want to know now we talk about it, how they got the Needle out of the boat,

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    They had to take her apart along the top unfortunately, the great problem is when your ship’s constructed fairly solidly around the object, you then have to deconstruct the ship to to lift the Needle out. So not a lot of the story survived in any great detail or not in coherent detail. You hear different versions, but one of the most prevalent ones is that the upper plating was removed and the Needle was craned out and then

     

    Sam Willis 

    I wonder if that was in location at Embankment once they’ve worked out it was going to be there, or whether they did that somewhere else.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    That I don’t know I’m afraid.

     

    Sam Willis 

    We need to find out, we want to find out more about this story. There have to be some kind of records because there was a big debate about where it was going to go, wasn’t there?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Yes there was, a huge one. And I think having made it safely to Britain the Needle did sit inside the vessel for some time until everyone’s mind was made up.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, I wonder if it went back to the shipyard where the iron was was originally constructed. So they made up their minds. As I understand it there was a debate about having it in the Palace of Westminster, various other locations, but they settled on the Embankment where you can see it today. Have you been to see it yourself?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    I have, I’ve been, I’ve actually leaned up against it. It’s an amazing thing to see.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, and I know they have the names of the sailors who died out in Biscay though, they’re inscribed at the bottom of  the monument there. So that’s a poignant thing to go and  look at.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    I think  I just want to say that tragically, we don’t really know exactly what became of the Cleopatra herself because for a vessel that was really special and did receive quite a lot of coverage in the press at the time the Illustrated London News is one of the best sources of drawings for her. But very little else has survived beyond artists’ depictions of the event and one model which our museum is very lucky to have. So we have some visual references, but  if anyone ever asked us does a full set of engineering drawings for this remarkable vessel survive, the answer is, as far as we know, sadly not, and I think part of the reason for that is that Thames Iron Works disappeared. Very early in the 20th century the company went under, and the vast majority of their technical archive disappeared with them, which is very sad for London’s greatest shipbuilder to vanish so completely like that. But if there was any reference to Dixon’s original drawings, or Thames Ironworks own drawings of the vessel, they have probably long gone. As for the vessel herself, it’s believed that the remnants were just probably left in a creek somewhere, but nobody really knows where, so it would have been nice if she was preserved as a memorial to a really interesting endeavour and in many respects an incredible engineering triumph. But I suppose we do have the Needle itself; the fact of its existence here on the Embankment is in some ways tribute enough to Dixon’s planning and design abilities.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s sacrilegious as maritime historians to say that, but in this case the ship is not the most important thing.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    That is very true. Yes.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I know you’ve got a model of it, I’d like to see that. Let’s see if we get some photographs of that. And I I’ve been at this ship model store at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, and I know that they’ve got a model of it as well. So I’ll see if I can get some photographs of that and we can share them on social media so all of our listeners can check out the visualisation of this. I wonder whether those models were made at the time or afterwards, with someone basically trying to make up how it was done, or whether they are accurate. Would you have any idea, any sense?

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    Nothing concrete I’m afraid. It is thought by our ship models curator that our model was made some time in the 1890s. But although it looks broadly correct dimensionally, the way it’s built and executed has that slightly amateurish look about it. So it’s certainly not a Dockyard apprentice model, let’s put it that way. So it’s tantalisingly close and it looks right, especially when you hold it up next to the Illustrated London News sketches. But we just don’t know for sure.

     

    Sam Willis 

    No, fascinating mystery the whole thing. It’s just clouded in mystery, but then the evidence of the success is there on the Embankment for us all to see. Andrew, thank you very much indeed for sharing this wonderful story with me today.

     

    Andrew Choong Han-Lin 

    It’s been a real pleasure Sam, thank you very much.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now please make sure that this isn’t the last thing you do to enjoy the content that we produce. We’ve got a huge back catalogue of fascinating episodes to explore, great naval battles, shipbuilding, fishing, ship models, exploration, maritime art and literature, famous heroes, maritime disasters, we’ve got it all. Please also do check out our YouTube channel, it’s simply brilliant. There are numerous innovative videos there presenting the maritime past in an entirely new light. My current favourite apart of course from the brilliant Cleopatra animation is an animation of an eyewitness battle plan of the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when the Japanese annihilated the Russian fleet in one of the most decisive battles in history. It gives you an entirely new perspective on how that battle unfolded. Please also remember that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. You can find the History and Education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. and the Society for Nautical Research@snr.org.uk where you can join up, please do, there’s a free level of membership. But if you’re willing to part with a small donation you get a huge number of benefits, one of which of course is our winter lecture series where you can enjoy being enthralled and entertained by some of the finest maritime scholars in the world. You could find out all about that@snr.org.uk

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