Swimming the 21 miles of the English Channel is now quite a regular event, with a large number of successful crossings made every year, whether as solo, team or relay attempts. However, this feat was believed by many people to be impossible before Matthew Webb achieved it in 1875.
Matthew Webb’s early years
Matthew Webb was born on 18th January 1848 at Dawley, Shropshire, which is not far from Ironbridge on the River Severn. He was one of twelve children born to a country doctor, also named Matthew, and his wife Sarah.
He learned to swim in the river at the age of eight and, when not much older, rescued his younger brother who had got into difficulties.
He was only twelve years old when he became a cadet on a Merchant Navy training ship on the River Mersey. He was noted as being a strong swimmer who could swim for an hour without a break, but not with any great speed.
As a merchant seaman he used his swimming ability to good effect, for example in recovering some cargo that had been lost overboard in heavy seas off South Africa. In 1874 he was awarded a gold medal for attempting to rescue a passenger who had fallen into the Atlantic from a ship, although the attempt was unsuccessful.
In 1875 he became captain of the “Emerald of Liverpool”. Although he only held the post for a short time he was always known from this point on as Captain Webb. He left the ship’s service when he read about a failed attempt to swim the English Channel and he determined to try this feat for himself.
His Channel swim
He spent several weeks in training, being accompanied in his swims along the south coast by Robert Watson, a journalist, who was rowed along beside Webb, who used a slow breaststroke.
Webb’s first attempt from Dover was on 12th August 1875, but he abandoned his swim having covered more than half the distance, due to bad weather which threatened to swamp the accompanying boat.
He tried again on 24th August, and this was the swim that achieved its aim. He started from Dover’s Admiralty Pier at 1 pm, wearing a red silk costume. During the night he was spotted by the crew of the “Maid of Kent” who hung a lamp overboard so that the passengers could cheer him on by singing “Rule Britannia”.
Unfortunately, the tide turned before Webb was able to reach the French side, with only seven miles to go. He appeared to be swept backwards and he was forced to swim much further than he had anticipated. It is estimated that the actual distance swum by Webb was more than 40 miles, or nearly double the shortest possible distance between the two shores. He took 22 hours to complete the crossing, but recovered quite quickly.
Captain Webb became an overnight sensation, with huge celebrations held in his honour. He was invited to give talks about his exploit all over the country, which should have made him a small fortune, but he was never adept at handling money and it was not long before poverty forced him into undertaking other feats and exhibitions. For example, he allowed himself to become an exhibit as he floated in a tank of water for up to 60 hours. He took part in race challenges, even though his forte was endurance rather than speed.
A forced challenge that proved to be fatal
He married Madeleine Chaddock on 27th April 1880 and started a family. This made his financial situation even worse and he could see no way of avoiding destitution other than to undertake another dangerous feat, the opportunity for which arrived in 1883. This was to swim the Niagara River below the Falls, which would involve negotiating the rapids and a quarter-mile wide whirlpool. He hoped to earn $10,000 from the swim. However, he was now aged 35 and past his best as an athlete. He was advised against the attempt by friends and doctors but he ignored all their warnings.
He sailed the Atlantic with his family in July and spent a few days training off Nantucket, although he had not told his wife what he was intending to do. He therefore travelled to Niagara alone, having arranged to make the swim on 21st July. The date was put back to 24th July because the railway companies wanted time to put on extra trains to take the expected 10,000 spectators to the event.
At 4 pm Webb was rowed to the centre of the river and dived in, wearing the same red costume that he had used for his Channel swim. It was clear that he knew just how dangerous this swim was because his last words to the boatman were to ask for his wife and children to be provided for should he not survive. Although he negotiated the first part of the swim without apparent problems, when he reached the whirlpool he was soon pulled under.
It was several days before Matthew Webb’s body was recovered, much battered by the ordeal. His skull had been fractured by being smashed against the rocks and his famous red costume was cut to ribbons. His body was buried in the “Stranger’s Rest” plot of Oakwood cemetery, close to the river.
Captain Matthew Webb will always have the honour of being first to achieve the notable feat of swimming the English Channel, although his performance has been outdone many times since. His time of 22 hours has been beaten by most of his followers, with the current record being under seven hours. Other swimmers have crossed the Channel on multiple occasions (Alison Streeter has made 43 crossings) and some have even swum “there and back” (with several three way swims also being recorded). However, only one person can be first!
It is also inconceivable that, had Matthew Webb been around today rather than in Victorian times, he would have been forced by poverty to attempt the exploit that cost him his life. The modern cult of celebrity has much in its disfavour, but at least it keeps most of its “victims” in a healthy financial state.© John Welford