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CLEOPATRA'S NEEDLE

 
Page last updated 30-1-2012
 
[February 2008]. Since this page was first published in November 2007 more info has been provided by visitors and I also decided to do some more research myself, mostly trawling through the newspaper articles of the time. What follows below therefore is an updated version of the original text, incorporating the new material.
I have been asked many times for information regarding the tow of Cleopatras needle, and if any crew names are available. For what was arguably the most well known of the tows William Watkins undertook, information is fairly hard to come by and there seems to be several different versions. I have set out below the information known to ME at this time. If anybody can add any details or clarify any matter or otherwise add to the story please feel free to contact the site on the email link on the mess room page. If you provide info please if possible give its origin so that it can be credited. There appear to be many websites providing info regarding the 187 ton needle itself so I have not detailed this and concentrated on the voyage. I cannot credit some of the following  as it has been in my notebooks for many years. My apologies to those concerned.
The first two vital things to remember about Cleopatra's Needle are (a) It is not a needle and (b) It has nothing whatsoever to do with Cleopatra!. The 187 ton 68.5' tall granite obelisk was given to the British nation by Mohammed Ali of Egypt in 1819. It was carved in honour of Thothmes III, King of Egypt about 1500BC. It was originally one of a pair that stood outside the Temple at Heliopolis. The other obelisk is now in New York. I believe it was given by the Egyptians in honour of Lord Nelson winning the Battle of the Nile. Strangely the Royal Navy refused to have anything to do with the columns later transportation to Britain.

In 1877, the distinguished London surgeon and philanthropist Dr Erasmus Wilson offered a sum of £10,000 to bring the Needle to London. The Treasury refused to commit any public funds and discouraged the employment of any Royal Naval ship. [The RN in fact seemed adamant that they would not be connected in any way with the needles transportation]. The matter was therefore left to private enterprise. A chartered  engineer, Mr John Dixon, designed an iron cylinder - the 'Cleopatra Iron Vessel' - which could be towed behind another ship. He also became what would be called today, the project manager. This container, variously described as a cigar shaped cylinder, a cylindrical pontoon or a lighter was constructed of 5/8” and 7/16” boiler plate by Thames Ironworks.Upon the cylinder was a deck house for crew accommodation, and masts for lights and carrying a small set of sails. The front and rear compartments would be filled with concrete. The Cleopatra was transported to Alexandria in parts and reassembled on the beach  under the supervision of John Dixon and  Captain Henry Carter who was to command it with a crew of Maltese seamen. [I believe a document at National Archives at Kew actually holds the names of these Maltese seamen]. The needle was laying near the beach at Alexandria. The sand was removed from under it a small section at a time and the cylinder was gradually reassembled around the obelisk. A roadway was leveled through the sea wall and down the beach to the waters edge so that the cylinder could be launched by literally rolling it down the beach, finally being pulled into the water by local tugs. There are photographs showing the cylinder on the beach at Alexandria with paddle tugs in the background. These are local Egyptian vessels and NOT the Anglia.
 
 
 
 
8th September 1877.
A telegram was received, by The Times, from John Dixon stating that the launch had been somewhat delayed because a rock had punctured the cylinder whilst it was being rolled and it had started taking in water. The tugs could not then move it so hydraulic jacks were employed to turn the cylinder, bringing the hole clear so that it could be repaired. After repair the cylinder was pumped out, launching completed and it was taken on a highly successful six mile trial tow. The cylinder was then placed in the Khedive’s dry dock for the adding of bilge keels, mast, deckhouse and ballasting  etc.
 
 
S.S. OLGA
 
21st September 1877.
Cleopatra was reported as having left Alexandria in tow of the steamer Olga.
 I have seen the Olga variously described as a Tug, a Tug/steamer or a British Cargo vessel. Olga  was a 1329 tons gross 251’x32’ 130hp British registered single screw  cargo steamer launched on 2-6-1870 by J. Laing Ltd., at their Deptford Yard in Sunderland. ON60222. Owned by the St. Andrews Steam Co., Liverpool she was commanded by Captain Booth. Olga towed Cleopatra a quarter mile astern with a three and half inch steel cable manufactured by Messrs Newall. Cleopatra was crewed by Captain Carter and six Maltese seamen. Olga was contracted to tow the cylinder to Falmouth. Even at this stage it had been decided that the tow up Channel would be better carried out by a tug.
 
27th September 1877
Olga and tow passing Malta.
 
1st October 1877
Olga made an unscheduled stop at Algiers to rebunker with coal as fuel consumption had proved higher than expected.
 
7th October 1877
Olga passing Gibraltar.
 
10th October 1877.
Olga and tow were reported by Lloyds, Lisbon, as having passed Sagres at 0540.
 
11th October 1877
Passing estuary of River Tagus.
 
13th October 1877.
Cape Finisterre passed 1700, light Southerly wind.
 
14th October 1877.
  Posn 44.53N 7.52W. Wind NW fresh, rising to gale with heavy squalls and a fast rising sea.
1700. Cleopatra signals Olga ‘Heave-to’.
1800. Cleopatra seen to be listing.
1900. Cleopatra signals ‘Assistance required’. What had actually happened was that the ballast of railway lines had shifted in the gale and laid the Cleopatra almost on her starboard beam ends. Captain Carter and his crew entered the cylinder via a manhole and several times attempted to restow the rails to right the vessel but every time they began to bring the cylinder upright another heavy sea ruined their work. [This must have been a nightmare scenario, inside the cylinder in a full gale with railway lines constantly moving about]
2120. Cleopatra signaled ‘Foundering, send a boat’. Olga managed to launch a boat with a volunteer crew. Here again appear discrepancies. The Times of Friday October 19th 1877 names the men, but after each I have bracketed variations i have come across from other sources.  William Austin [Askin] 2nd mate; Michael Burns AB, James Gardner [Gardiner] boatswain;  James McDonald [William Donald] AB; , Joseph Benbow [Benton] AB; and William Paton [Patan] AB. The boat managed to reach Cleopatra but the crew were unable to catch ropes thrown to them and the lifeboat drifted away. It is  assumed that it later swamped and sank as it or its crew were never seen again. This however was not known to Captain Booth who at 2300 attempted to signal Cleopatra to ask if the boat was still with them, but could not establish contact. [Cleopatra had attempted to launch her own boat, but once afloat it fouled the cylinders  rudder yoke and was smashed,]
 
15th October 1877
0100. Olga noticed that Cleopatras mast had been cut away and heard shouts for assistance and that the boat had drifted away. Captain Booth now decided to slip the tow and try to put Olga alongside the cylinder, but could not hold position.
0200 An unsuccessful attempt made to float a line across by buoy.
0500 Another similar unsuccessful attempt made.
0630 A line was successfully passed, a boat launched and pulled across with it and Captain Carter and his crew successfully taken off.
0740 Olga left the area at full speed to look for her missing boat.
1230 After an unsuccessful search it was assumed boat and crew were lost and Olga left the area.
 
17th October 1877
2100. Olga arrived at Falmouth, reporting Cleopatra abandoned at 44.53N 7.52W, on her beam ends in a SW force 8 gale and that Olga’s  2nd mate and five hands had been lost.
 
20th October 1877
The Times reported that Captain Carter and his crew were leaving Falmouth for London, having completed all formalities. The Olga also left Falmouth about this time to deliver her cargo of grain to Liverpool.
 
The events above were now of course a matter of national interest and many letters to various newspaper editors questioned the sense of attempting the tow across Biscay at that time of year. A public subscription was opened for the widows and children of the six lost men. One sad fact noted was that a telegram was waiting at Falmouth for Olga’s missing 2nd mate informing him of the birth of his first child.
 
S.S. FITZMAURICE
 
 
15th October 1877.
1730. The Glasgow steamer Fitzmaurice came across the abandoned Cleopatra, about 90 miles NE of Ferrol, about the same position where Olga had abandoned it earlier the same day. The Fitzmaurice, commanded by James Evans,  was an iron screw steamer of 474grt 169’x23’ 70hp built at Dumbarton in 1875 and was on passage from Middlesbrough to Valencia with a cargo of Pig Iron.
 
16th October 1877
After laying by Cleopatra all night whilst the weather abated the Fitzmaurice sent across a boarding party at first light. They found the cylinder still had a heavy list with the rudder jammed hard-a-starboard by the operating chains being entangled. These were cleared by one of the boarding party entering the water. The original towing hawser, hanging down from a shackle low on the stem, was cleared.  Part of the ballast was restowed, a tow wire passed and towing commenced.
 
17th October 1877.
2100. Fitzmaurice towed Cleopatra into Ferrol Harbour. The total service had taken about 52 hours, the tow covering 95 miles. The tow had parted three times and Fitzmaurice damaged her davits against Cleopatra whilst attempting to reconnect. The owners of Fitzmaurice lodged a salvage claim for £5000.
 
   In Frank Bowen's book, a hundred years of towage, being the history of William Watkins ltd, 1833-1933 only 17 lines are devoted to the whole episode. The Olga is not mentioned by name. The book states that the Cleopatra was towed into Ferrol by the Spanish fishermen who found it. This is the only source I have found stating this.  All other sources state it was towed into port by the Glasgow steamer Fitzmaurice. Perhaps the fishermen found it and guided Fitzmaurice to it, being unable to effect a tow themselves?. This book was published in 1933, only 56 years after the actual event, so there were presumably still people about who either remembered this episode first hand or even took part in it. Another small mystery!
 
S.T. ANGLIA
 
22nd December 1877.
Captain Carter sent a telegram to John Dixon from Ferrol where he had arrived some two weeks earlier with a hand picked English Crew. He reported all well and stated repairs and retrimming of the cylinder was going well and should be completed within  ten days. Dixon replied that he had engaged the services of William Watkins to send one of his powerful channel tugs to Ferrol to tow the Cleopatra home in due course. The towage fee negotiated was £500, payment being contingent on bringing Cleopatra to a safe mooring in the Thames.
 
10th January 1878
Dixon reported that Anglia had left Millwall for Ferrol, hoping to arrive on the 14th.
 
14th January 1878
Anglia arrived at Ferrol with Captain John Tracy as navigating Captain and Captain David glue as towing Captain, with a crew of seventeen. Also aboard were Mr Alfred Watkins and Masters John and Philip Watkins.
 
15th January 1878
 [A bail or bond had apparently been posted pending the settlement of the salvage claim in England at a later date.]
0700 Cleopatra reports all ready.
0735 Anchor hove up.
0745 Slow ahead. Cleopatra take hard sheer to port.
0755 Harbour entrance. Cleopatra on port quarter, against hard helm and listing a little.
0800 Passing forts. Cleopatra on short hawser, on port side, bow about level with tow hook, hawser at right angles.
0815 11rpm with engines now disconnected. Tow still on port beam.
0838 Pilot dropped, engines connected.
0840 Cleopatra takes heavy sheer to Starboard.
0845 Speed increased to 15rpm.
0852 Rounding Cape Priano, Cleopatra sheering wildly and rolling heavily.
0858 Stopped to pay out more cable.
0902 Hawser paid out to 100 fathoms. Under way again, Cleopatra towing much easier on longer rope.
1000 Clearing Cape Prior, Cleopatra pitching badly.
1025 Course set NE for Ushant. Wind E by N, light. 17.5rpm.
1200 Wind freshening, tops of seas breaking.
1300 Wind and sea increasing.
1330 Reduced to half speed.
1530 Blowing hard from East. Anglia throwing spray from bows over bridge and deck. Cleopatra pitching heavily but towing well on port quarter.
2100 Wind and sea moderate. Speed increased to 18.5rpm, six knots.
 
16th January 1878
Wind Easterly, Cloudy.
0910 Captain Carter wrote on blackboard 'Tow faster if you wish'. Speed increased to 20rpm.
1145 An interchange of signals checks position and course. Distance run in 24 hours is 126 miles.
1900 Sky cloudy, Wind Northerly, sea smooth. No other vessels sighted today. Cleopatra steering wildly after dark.
 
17th January 1878
0100 Cleopatra showed white light, signifying 'please tow slower'. Engines eased. Wind NE light. Cloudy. Sea smooth. Low Westerly swell. Tow steering well.
0930 Increased speed to 19.5rpm. Cleopatra signals 'Will you dine with me? Have Roast beef, hare, jelly, plum pudding and mince pies. Anglia signals 'Will dine off your fowls' [She carried some live chickens aboard belonging to Captain Carter].
1200 Wind light, sea very smooth. Distance run from noon yesterday 134 miles.
1800 Sighted flashing light off Chaussee du Sein. Cleopatra showed a blue and red light signifying 'You are running into danger'. Anglia acknowledged with whistle to show she was aware of position.
2150 Sighted Ushant light. Weather fine, wind light, sea smooth, occasional moonlight.
2400 Cleopatra signals 'Tow slower'.
 
 
18th January 1878
0130 Anglia and tow rounded Ushant and set course up Channel.
0700 Outbound P and O steamer passed very close.
0930 Passed a black barque, outbound. Weather beautiful, Wind N, very light. Sea very smooth. Cleopatra yawing badly.
1235 Cleopatra signalled 'Stop for repairs. Shortening wheel chains'.
1255 Cleopatra signalled 'proceed'.
1430 Cleopatra signalled 'unable to steer accurately in smooth water'. Anglia stopped and went within hailing distance of tow. A shouted discussion between the two masters agreed to continue towing with Cleopatras rudder fixed amidships. Tow restarted at 18.5rpm. Cleopatra took an immediate sheer to port and then steadied off the port quarter. Speed about five knots. Sea like millpond.
2030 Sighted Start light. Cleopatra still towing unsteered. Bright moonlight. Sea calm.
 
19th January 1878
 Wind S light. Sea smooth.
0900 Off Portland. Cleopatra towing broadside on.
1200 Cleopatra signalled requesting tow be shortened before nightfall.
1600 Passed Needles and reported.
1815 Passed St Catherines.
2115 Passed Owers LV.
 
 
20th January 1878
 Wind W, Breezy and cloudy.
0400 Passed Beachy Head.
1000  Anglia and tow reported passing Dungeness.
1240 Passing South Foreland.
1340 Passing Gulls.
1430 Passing North Foreland.
1630 Passing Margate, weather fine, wind SW.
1715 Passing Tongue LV.
1815 In Princes Channel.
1920 Passing Girdler LV.
2015 Passing Mouse LV.
2200 Passing Chapman light.
2230 Anchored off Chapman light. Tow lying astern on hawser. Wind S strong.
 
21st January 1878
0730 Under Way.
1000 Arrived Gravesend and moored to buoy to wait for tide. Boarded by Mr and Mrs Dixon.
1200 Anglia and tow departed Gravesend for East India Dock.
1430 Anglia and Cleopatra locking in to East India Dock.
 
Some sources state that  the school children of Gravesend were given half a day off school to witness the arrival of Anglia, with Captain David Glue at the helm, and Cleopatra on the 21st January 1878. Perhaps he had lain below Gravesend and made a triumphal arrival next day in daylight. [The London Daily News states the Anglia anchored off the Chapman Light at 22.30 and arrived off Gravesend at 1100 next day where Dixon boarded the tug. ] Anglia was actually commanded by Captain John Tracy with Captain David Valentine Glue as towing master. Anglia’s mate for the voyage was S R Reader, although he was an established captain of another of Watkins tugs at the time. Watkins had obviously treated this as a high profile job as there were also three members of the Watkins family aboard, John, Philip and Alfred. Other crew members may have been James Hunnable, Charles Keeble, William Fulbrooke and Frederick McBride.
 
 
2nd February 1878
Cleopatra left East India Dock in tow of Era, assisted by two other tugs bound for a mooring off St. Thomas’s Hospital, Lambeth to await preparation of the site on the Embankment.
 
As to these later events I feel I can do no better than include an extract from a one penny pamphlet published at the time. This was kindly sent to me by Anne Hewes, the original being in her families possession:-
 
Extract from Cleopatra and all about her needle and the event that led to its arrival in England.
". The needle's last venture on the water before her erection on the ground chosen for her in her new home took place at an early hour of the morning of Saturday February 2nd. The arrangements for unlocking the Cleopatra were then made under the supervision of Colonel Du Plat Taylor, Secretary of the East India Dock Company, Mr Astat, Superintendent, and Captain Marrable, Dock Master. After being towed into the river by the 'Era' a tug belonging to Mr Watson, owner of the 'Anglia' which brought the obelisk from Ferrol, the 'Trogan' and another tug were firmly lashed on either side of the Cleopatra to make her steer steadier than she did on the previous voyage, and were handsomely dressed with the flags of the Shipwrights' Company, commanded by Mr Lovell, the pilot, in company with Captain Carter, who brought the 'Cleopatra' from Alexandria. The public excitement became so intense that those who could afford the expense chartered several wherries all along the Thames to get a close inspection. Accompanying Mr Dixon (who was responsible for the work of bringing the needle to England) and friends, were Sir Charles Adderley, President of the Board of Trade. An escort was provided by the Thames Conservancy Board's Launch, in charge of Captain James, having on board Admiral Ommaney and some other members, who went ahead to secure a clear course for the procession. Captain Carter with his mate, Mr Matthews, and the same crew as brought her over, were on board. Guns were fired from several wharfs in response to which she saluted; and besides multitudes on both the river banks, crowds hailed from all the bridges although so early in the morning".
 
Here again errors have crept in. The tug Era  attributed to the ownership of a Mr Watson rather than Watkins. I would imagine William Watkins was not too pleased at this basic error!!.
The tug Trogan was probably Trojan.
 
1st June 1878
The Cleopatra was towed from her moorings and beached at the obelisks present site  on the Embankment.
 At low tides the iron cylinder was gradually cut away and scrapped. The getting ashore and standing upright of the column is beyond the scope of this site but was another magnificent Victorian engineering feat in its own right.
 
During April 1878 the salvage claim was heard in the Admiralty court and an award of £2000 was eventually awarded the owners of the Fitzmaurice. The judge was asked to apportion the award. £1200 was apportioned to the owners, £250 to the Master of Fitzmaurice, the remaining £550 being divided amongst his crew, The Mate, Engineer and volunteers who boarded Cleopatra getting double shares and the seaman who was submerged cutting the rudder chains getting three shares.
 
10th January 1880
Captain Henry Carter who commanded the Cleopatra, dies of dysentry in Bombay, aged 44 years. He was at the time still continuing his career as Master of conventional cargo ships.
 
September 1882
Captain David Valentine Glue dies in Poplar, London also at the age of 44.
 
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If you would be interested in making a card model of the paddle tug Anglia and the Cleopatra and obelisk visit Walden Models website.
 
 
Last amended 28th November 2008. 21st March 2009.10-2-2010. 24-4-2010. 24-5-2010.
 
 
 
 Acknowledgements to The Times, Frank C Bowen, Anne Hewes, Captain David Brown and all others who have contributed via e-mails etc. For more info on the Reader family and other crew members see messages posted in Mess Room  or visit Rollcall pages.
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These then are various facets of the saga known to me. Hopefully further discussion will follow and, as ever, will be welcomed.
 
 
 
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