//
you're reading...
Daily History

August 25 1875 Captain Webb swims the English Channel


Matthew Webb, a 27-year-old merchant navy captain, becomes the first known person to successfully swim the English Channel. Captain Webb accomplished the gruelling 21-mile crossing, which really entailed 39 miles of swimming because of tidal currents, in 21 hours and 45 minutes.

During the overnight crossing from Dover, England, to Calais, France, Captain Webb drank brandy, coffee, and beef tea to keep his strength and heat up. He was hailed as a national hero upon his return to England, and a triumphal arch was erected in his honour in his hometown in Shropshire. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed, “At this moment the Captain is probably the best-known and most popular man in the world.”

One of 12 children, Webb learned to swim in the Severn River below Ironbridge. At age 12, he joined the mercantile training ship Conway. He was not remembered as a fast swimmer, but his fellow cadets noted his endurance. While travelling the world with the merchant navy, Webb made his mark with several brave and dangerous swims.

Endurance swimming was popular in the 1870s, and Webb decided to swim the English Channel after reading in a newspaper about an unsuccessful attempt. He trained along England’s south coast, swimming distances of 10 to 20 miles and becoming acclimatised to the cold water. In August 1875, his first attempt to swim the Channel ended in failure, but he decided to give it another try.

On August 24, 1875, smeared in porpoise fat for insulation and wearing a red swimming costume made of silk, he dove off Dover’s Admiralty Pier into the chilly waters of the Channel. He began the race in the late evening because of the tides and kept up a slow and steady pace in the dark, using the breaststroke.

Accompanying boats handed him beef tea, brandy, and other liquids to sustain him, and Webb braved stinging jellyfish and patches of seaweed as he plodded on. Seven miles from the French coast, the tide changed, and he appeared to be driven backward, but just after 10 a.m. he approached the French shore. The crew of the outgoing mail ship The Maid of Kent serenaded him with “Rule Britannia,” and shortly before 11 a.m. Webb waded ashore.

After sleeping 12 hours in France, Webb returned to England by boat, saying, “the sensation in my limbs is similar to that after the first day of the cricket season.” He was honoured at a welcoming banquet in Dover, where the mayor proclaimed, “In the future history of the world, I don’t believe that any such feat will be performed by anyone else.” The London Stock Exchange set up a testimonial fund for him. He toured the country, lecturing and swimming.

Within a few years, interest in Captain Webb began to wane. Overexposed on the lecture circuit and having spent or given away most of the money he earned as a result of his Channel swim, he agreed to a series of degrading exhibitions.

In March 1880, he floated for 60 hours in the whale tank of the Royal Aquarium in Westminster, and in October he agreed to an extended swim in the freezing waters of Lancashire Lake. He was pulled from the water exhausted and hypothermic, and those close to him said his constitution never recovered.

Seeking an alternate form of income, he prided himself on being an inventor, but few ever saw his bicycle, swimming apparatus, or flying machine, which had flapping seagull-like wings. Reportedly, he broke his nose testing the flying machine.

Eventually, Captain Webb travelled to America with his wife and two children and staged swimming exhibitions that attracted varying degrees of attention. Hearing of the exploits of Emile Blondin, a French daredevil who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope, Captain Webb came up with a new plan to restore his fame and fortune. He would travel to the Falls and swim a particularly treacherous stretch of the Niagara River that was feared for its lethal rapids and whirlpool.

Upon his arrival in Niagara Falls, he called a press conference to outline what he believed would be his greatest exploit since swimming the English Channel. He would embark in a small boat to a point below the Falls. He would then jump out and float down through the rapids.

If it was too difficult to stay on the surface, he would dive down, coming up occasionally to breathe and show off his swimming ability. Then he would make his way around the whirlpool, estimating that it would take him two or three hours to extricate himself from its pull. Once beyond it, he would swim to the shore on the Canadian side.

Locals advised Webb that his plan was suicide, noting that 80 people had died in the rapids in recent memory. Webb ignored them and estimated that he would receive $10,000 from the railroad companies, which he assumed would profit greatly from throngs of spectators travelling to Niagara for the event.

Ultimately, the railroads refused to sponsor him, and he was rowed out into the river at 4 p.m. on July 24, 1883, intending to risk his life for what he called the credit of his good name. Clad in the same red swimming suit he wore when he swam the Channel, he dove bravely into the water. A cheer went up from the thousands of spectators gathered along the shore.

At first he was swimming powerfully and looked untroubled, but then the river narrowed, and he was gripped by the rapids. Three times he was pulled under and then came up hundreds of feet from where he was seen last. He was no longer in control and was pulled downstream at a furious pace. As he came upon the whirlpool, he threw up his right arm and then went under. Seconds, minutes, and hours passed, and he didn’t come up.

Five days later, his gashed, bruised, and bloated body was found by a fisherman downstream. It had been held by the whirlpool for sometime before being expelled. The body had a huge head wound, exposing the skull, but an autopsy concluded that Webb probably was crushed by the force of the whirlpool and suffered the gash later.

Webb was given a pauper’s burial in the Oakwood cemetery at the edge of the Falls, in a small plot known as “The Strangers’ Rest.” In 1908, in what would have been his 60th year, the Webb Memorial was erected at his birthplace in England. Its simple inscription reads, “Nothing Great Is Easy.”

This Day In History

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “August 25 1875 Captain Webb swims the English Channel

  1. Don’t understand why we have to swim over the English channel .. they still do. Brilliant post.

    Posted by viveka | August 29, 2012, 02:28
  2. great story craig!

    Posted by michaelbanak | August 29, 2012, 12:01

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

If you liked what you just read, click "Subscribe" to become a follower of the Craig Hill site. You will receive an email each time a new post is published.

Join 17,663 other followers

An archive of all my old posts

Follow me on Twitter

Most Recent Posts Post on My Blog About China: China News

Chinese drones now almost a daily appearance over Taiwan

Chinese drones now almost a daily appearance over Taiwan

The Chinese military has intensified its drone incursions into the skies above Taiwan with almost daily flights of combat and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) TB-001 drone was spotted crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the de facto boundary between the island and China’s […]

India says disengagement along disputed area with China to be completed by September 12

India says disengagement along disputed area with China to be completed by September 12

India’s foreign ministry said on Friday that disengagement along a disputed border area with China will be completed by Sept. 12. Both countries began disengaging from the Gogra-Hot Springs border area in the western Himalayas on Thursday, over two years after clashes at the frontier strained diplomatic ties. The disengagement comes ahead of a meeting […]

How to make EVs without China’s supply chain

How to make EVs without China’s supply chain

Two electrifying moves in recent weeks have the potential to ignite electric vehicle demand in the United States. First, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, expanding federal tax rebates for EV purchases. Then California approved rules to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. The Inflation Reduction Act extends the Obama-era EV tax […]

Anti-India forces: Techniques and agendas exposed

Anti-India forces: Techniques and agendas exposed

In the post-cold war era, India has moved from a policy of non-alignment to a policy of multi-alignment. This means that India has friendly relations with almost all-powerful and developing nations. Today India is carving out a unique path for itself. Such an approach provides prominence and exposes India to the harmful behind-curtain activities by […]

Taiwan’s Kinmen serves as a reminder of China’s aggression

Taiwan’s Kinmen serves as a reminder of China’s aggression

Taiwan’s frontline island of Kinmen was once again in the headlines when President Tsai Ing-wen paid tribute this week to the soldiers and civilians who “operated in solidarity and safeguarded Taiwan” 64 years ago. On Aug. 23, 1958 mainland Chinese troops attacked Kinmen in a key battle that marked the beginning of the Second Taiwan […]

Terrorism: The glue that holds China and Pakistan together 

Terrorism: The glue that holds China and Pakistan together 

The father of communism, Karl Marx, once famously said — “We have no compassion, and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror”. This statement summarises how terrorism and communism go hand in hand. Maoist China alone destroyed between 44.5 to 72 million lives. During […]

‘New normal’ across the Taiwan Strait as China threat looms ever closer

‘New normal’ across the Taiwan Strait as China threat looms ever closer

China is attempting to establish a “new normal” across the Taiwan Strait, eroding self-ruled Taiwan’s territorial control and increasing the threat of a strike with each military sortie, officials and analysts say. Beijing has ramped up military maneuvers in the 110-mile (180-kilometer) wide stretch of water that separates Taiwan from mainland China — and the […]

When Beijing was burning, Xi was playing personal games 

When Beijing was burning, Xi was playing personal games 

A great fire destroyed Rome for six days in the summer of AD 64. Famous Roman historian of that time, Tacitus, recorded that 70 percent of the city was destroyed and half of the city’s residents were displaced. Roman ruler Nero was accused of being indifferent, ineffective, and careless. The end result of this neglect […]

China would re-educate Taiwan in event of reunification

China would re-educate Taiwan in event of reunification

Once China achieves its professed goal of establishing control over Taiwan, a process of “re-education” of the island’s population would follow, according to China’s Ambassador to France Lu Shaye. The ambassador was speaking on French television channel BFM TV on Wednesday night, when he said a majority of the Taiwanese population actually wanted to be […]

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is a political sabotage

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is a political sabotage

Sri Lanka’s present state confirms the famous statement: “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” Sri Lankans have been repeating the mistakes of choosing the politicians Rajapaksas again and again. It is confirmed that there were unaccounted payments that the Chinese were liberal with during project negotiations with the island nation. They were paid […]

%d bloggers like this: