While thousands walk past this obelisk in Kensington Gardens each day, few probably realise it commemorates the life of John Hanning Speke, a Victorian-era explorer who discovered Lake Victoria in East Africa and named its northern outflow as the source of the Nile.
The red granite monument, designed by Philip Hardwicke and made from stone quarried in Scotland, was paid for by public donations and sponsored by Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographic Society which had paid for two of Speke’s expeditions. It was installed in 1866 and is located near the junction of Lancaster Walk and Budges Walk.
Speke, who had been on several expeditions in Africa, had only died at the age of 37 two years before in relatively controversial circumstances. He was shot by his own gun only the day before he was to participate in a debate with another explorer, Sir Richard Burton, about the source of the River Nile (Speke claimed the source of the Nile was Rippon Falls which flowed out of Lake Victoria; Sir Richard disputed this claim – it was later proven correct). Some have claimed Speke’s death to be suicide; others that it was an accident.
The monument itself was circumspect with regard to Speke’s success – it didn’t directly credit him as being the discoverer of the river’s source. This was rectified in 1995 when a plaque giving credit where it was due was placed on the ground in front of the monument by the Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.