Treasures of London – Nelson’s Column

Towering over Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column was constructed in the 1840s to commemorate the man many believe to be Britain’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson.

Parliament started discussions on a monument commemorating Nelson only 10 years after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, but it wasn’t until 1838 that the Nelson Memorial Committee was finally formed and public subscriptions called for to raise funds for the monument.

The government agreed to provide the location and, following a controversial competition (which had to be run twice), William Railton’s designs showing a Corinthian column topped by a statue of Nelson (which it was stipulated had to be made by EH Bailey) with four lions at its base, was adopted.

The column was completed in 1843. It featured a bronze capital, made from old cannons taken from the Woolwich Arsenal and shaped in the form of acanthus leaves, and Bailey’s 5.5 metre (17 foot) tall statue of Nelson (made from Craigleith sandstone quarried in Scotland and donated by the Duke of Buccleuch). The four bronze identical lions, made by sculptor Sir Edwin Landseer and said to be modelled on a dead cat from a zoo, were not added until 1867.

On the column’s pedestal are four bronze relief panels showing Nelson’s four great victories – the Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen and the Battle of Trafalgar, the scene of which depicts the admiral in the throes of dying (he was killed by a musket bullet fired from the French vessel Redoubtable and was carried below decks where he died). They were apparently made from French guns captured at each of the battles.

The Grade I-listed column, which cost £47,500 to build, was refurbished in a four month exercise costing £420,000 in 2006, during which it was discovered that it was actually 16 foot shorter than had previously been thought (its total height, to the tip of Nelson’s hat, is actually 169 feet instead of the 185 feet previously supposed). It had previously been refurbished in 1986 and in 1968. You can see a gallery of images taken during the most recent restoration here.

Interestingly, it is reported that just before Bailey’s statue was raised to the top of the column in 1843, 14 stonemasons who had worked on it during construction held a celebration dinner party on the plinth at the top.

Treasures of London – Cleopatra’s Needle

Sited relatively unobtrusively on the north bank of the Thames at Victoria Embankment, it’s easy to overlook this ancient Egyptian obelisk which was erected on its current site in 1878.

Although it’s commonly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”, the red granite obelisk is in fact one of a pair originally constructed in the 15th century BC and placed in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis at the behest of Pharoah Thutmose III (the second one is now in New York’s Central Park and is also known by the name, Cleopatra’s Needle). The inscriptions were added later by Ramsses II. Both obelisks were subsequently moved to Alexandria and placed in a temple honoring Mark Antony. They later toppled over (and were covered in sand, which apparently helped with preservation).

The obelisk was given to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the grateful ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Mehemet Ali, in commemoration of British victories over the French at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

After the British government decided not to transport the obelisk to London due to the high expense, it remained in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson contributed £10,000 toward the cost in an act of publicly-minded benevolence. After an eventful journey it which at one point it and the iron cylinder it was encased in – dubbed the Cleopatra – were declared sunk before being found again (tragically six crew drowned in the incident), it was finally erected in October 1878.

A time capsule is buried at the base of the obelisk which contains, among other things, a portrait of Queen Victoria, hairpins, copies of the Bible in several languages and a map of London. One of the two bronze sphinxes which these days guard the obelisk, meanwhile, still bears the scars of damage which took place in World War II when a bomb landed nearby.