Heritage and Landscape, History

The Enduring and the Ephemeral by Chris Elliott

Few things are as enduring as obelisks. Cleopatra’s Needles have a history that stretches over thousands of years and in 1878, when one of them was shortly to arrive in London, an anonymous correspondent wrote to The Builder magazine expressing the hope that it would remain “let us hope for long centuries,- erect on the bank, till, in fact, Time’s tooth gnaws through the granite itself.”[1] Similarly, much of what we know about the acquisition of the London obelisk and reactions to its arrival comes from enduring sources; the correspondence of the great and the good in national newspapers and magazines for professionals, books written by those involved in its transport, and official records. But there is another side to its history, the evidence of the everyday and the ephemeral, which can give us insights into what the wider population in the UK thought about Egypt and its obelisks. One example from the research I did for Needles from the Nile can serve to illustrate this, as well as the breadth of topics and difficulties of interpretation that may be involved as a result.

First edition of the ‘Complete History’ showing deterioration due to acidic paper. Courtesy of the author’s own collection.

Among the eighty results that a search for ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ will turn up in the British Library catalogue is a pamphlet breathlessly titled

Complete History of the Romantic Life and Tragic Death of the Beautiful Egyptian Queen Cleopatra; and all about her Needle, 3,000 Years Old! And the events that led to its arrival in England; with an interpretation of its curious hieroglyphic inscriptions

It cost 1d. In modern terms, that is very roughly equivalent to about 50p or $0.65. At that price, it was printed on cheap, acidic paper, and those copies which have survived, without conservation, are now literally crumbling away. Its author was anonymous, and its publisher simply listed as W Sutton of St John’s Street, Smithfield, in London. Who were they? The simple answer is that currently I don’t know. One mention of the pamphlet in the press[2] says that it was published by the Book Society, based at the Bazaar in Soho Square, originally established after Waterloo as a place for the widows and daughters of army officers to rent stalls and sell handicrafts.[3] Was Sutton simply the printer, and the Society what we would now describe as the publisher? Perhaps a clue is provided by the fact that the Book Society are associated with another pamphlet on the Needle, Cleopatra’s Needle: Its wonderful history and instructive lessons. It summarised the history of the two Alexandrian obelisks, but concluded by observing that

‘We may, however, cherish this confidence, that when this darkness has really passed away, the historical accuracy of the writings of Scripture, which nothing discovered among the ruins of Egyptian antiquity has been able to discredit, will be established on a yet more indisputable basis.’[4]

Similarly, the Complete History pamphlet, referring to the original site of the Needles at Heliopolis, said that ‘Joseph… probably saw the erection of the very obelisk we now behold in London’ and reached a similar conclusion that, like Moses, ‘Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah uttered similar predictions of [Egypt’s] downfall, which have been fulfilled’. Taken together, this suggests that the Book Society were among a number of Victorian organisations publishing educational material with an improving religious message. In turn, that suggests the sort of audience they were aiming for, probably a family one, with enough disposable income to afford its publications and leisure to read them.

These were not the only pamphlets on the Needle published at the time. One newspaper, describing the crowds which came to view the Cleopatra obelisk barge when it was moored opposite the Houses of Parliament, noted that ‘ Several penny histories of Cleopatra’s Needle found an exceedingly brisk sale’.[5] How many were there in total? At least six is all I can say for certain. There was also a hierarchy within them, from the penny pamphlets to Erasmus Wilson’s early account of the Needle, published as a threepenny pamphlet, The Story of the Needle, as told by itself, originally published as four articles in The Ladies’ Treasury in 1879 and reissued as a sixpenny pamphlet, and material on the Needle from Engineering magazine published as a one shilling pamphlet. How many copies did they sell? We will probably never know for sure, but enough for the two Book Society ones to be republished in new and revised editions, while Erasmus Wilson went on to turn his into a book.

Second edition of the ‘Complete History’, revised with additional illustrations. Courtesy of the author’s own collection.

Individually, these pamphlets may seem to be simply the products of commercial publishers looking to cash in the arrival of a celebrated antiquity. Even describing them as ephemera suggests a lack of significance. But taken together, they help to add detail to our understanding of how contemporary British society understood the obelisk and Ancient Egypt. Then, they can be added to the other commemorative items or memorabilia which were produced at the time, such as microscope slides, lockets, and desk ornaments made from the granite trimmed off the Needle’s base, and subsequent items celebrating it as an iconic London landmark, like cigarette cards and match box labels. And then, the same process can be repeated with the New York Needle, and the two compared. Easily overlooked, the ephemeral has a claim to be as valuable in its own way as the enduring, if we are curious enough.

For more information about Chris Elliott’s new book Needles from the Nile, visit our website.

[1]     ‘ARIBA’, The Builder, 23 February 1878, 198.
[2]     Boy’s Herald, 2 March 1878, 5.
[3]     https://www.victorianlondon.org/shops/bazaars.htm
[4]     P. 22.
[5]     The Times, 4 February 1878, 10


Follow us for more updates
Sign up to our mailing list
Twitter | Instagram