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Minutes of the 369th meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 20th November 2018:  

Speaker Ian Pearce: ‘Cleopatra’s Needle – a local connection’

Ian gave a very interesting and informative talk to a packed and attentive audience on

Cleopatra’s Needle – a local connection.

He traced the story back to a double victory over Napoleon in Egypt, and to the wish of the soldiers to bring this ancient obelisk to England as a symbol of their triumph.  Unfortunately, government not only refused to fund the venture but for more than 70 years erected obstacles in the way of all attempts to do so.

Only when a Greek property investor bought the site of the ‘needle’ and threatened to smash it up for building stone did action finally result. A private individual, Erasmus Wilson, offered to pay £10,000 for its transport, though only upon delivery in England.   

The local engineering brothers, Raylton, John and Waynman Dixon became involved due to the accidental coincidence of winning a contract to build a bridge across the Nile.

Waynman’s subsequent passion for Egyptian history (as well, Ian suggested, as for Selima Harris, illegitimate daughter of an English diplomat - ten years Dixon’s senior and black into the bargain) led to him taking up the challenge of bringing the obelisk to London. At his own expense, he designed and constructed the “Cleopatra”, a wrought-iron vessel constructed like a cradle right around the obelisk, enabling it to be rolled into the Nile, then floated and towed to Britain. For the journey, Dixon and a six-man crew occupied a cabin on the Cleopatra itself.

Calamitously, in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, the tow had to be cut, and 6 seamen lost their lives in an attempt to rescue Dixon and the crew of the Cleopatra.  (Fortunately, a later attempt using a line was successful, and Dixon and his crew survived to tell the tale).

However, the Cleopatra itself had disappeared, and Waynman recorded the co-ordinates of the location where he believed it lay on the seabed.

Unexpectedly, a few days later Cleopatra was discovered afloat, taken in tow and delivered to a Spanish port by a passing ship on a run carrying scrap iron from Middlesbrough to Spain. Dixon was delighted with the news, and at his own expense once more, hired the most powerful tug on the Thames to tow it to London, where enthusiastic crowds celebrated its arrival.  

Amazingly, arguments now began about where to erect it, with Dixon favouring St Stephen’s Green beside Westminster palace. However, this would entail placing it on top of the recently excavated underground railway, and it was therefore finally erected on the newly constructed Victoria Embankment, close to where it had been brought ashore.   

Erection of the monument was completed by the Metropolitan Council, and they also sited the two sphinxes which flank it to this day. Unfortunately, they positioned them looking towards the Needle, instead of facing outwards. They also put up the plaques which now adorn it. Much to our speaker’s displeasure, Dixon goes unmentioned on the plaques, while Erasmus Wilson is lauded as the man responsible for the whole venture.

Ian’s talk concluded with the tale of what seems to have been the projected marriage

between the young engineer and Selima Harris, which Ian believes to have been blocked by Dixon’s parents.  When Waynman Dixon did marry, his bride was much younger than he was. They raised two children and lived out Waynman’s 30-year retirement in Great Ayton.