Oscar Wilde’s Father and the Campaign to Bring Cleopatra’s Needle to London

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William Wilde as a young man

On 12 September 1878, one of of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks, popularly known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’, was erected on Victoria Embankment in London. Presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan Muhammad Ali, in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801, this obelisk had remained in situ in Alexandria until 1877. It was then that Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist and dermatologist, sponsored its transportation to London at great expense.

Almost four decades earlier, in April 1839, William Wilde, a Dublin-based surgeon and keen amateur Egyptologist and archeologist, who had travelled extensively throughout Egypt and beyond, wrote an article for the Dublin University Magazine in which he urged the British Government to transport one of these obelisks to London. It was lying in the sands, utterly neglected, and would, he suggested, make a fitting tribute to ‘the immortal Nelson’.

In his book Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, which can be read online, he records his first encounter with the needles. Below is his article from the Dublin University Magazine in full, containing a detailed description of the obelisks along with practical suggestions as to how to transport them. Since William died in April 1876, with his sons, Willie and Oscar, and his wife, Jane, at his bedside, he never saw his scheme come to fruition.

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