//
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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 14,942 other followers

An archive of all my old posts

Follow me on Twitter

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

China’s trade practices come under fire

China’s trade practices come under fire

China’s trade policies have come under strong criticism during a review at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The US accused China of “skewing the playing field” by using “unfair trade practices” such as preferential treatment for state businesses. Meanwhile Australia said the country’s behaviour was “inconsistent” with its WTO commitments. China said it was committed […]

China’s economy weakens, then gets even worse and now there’s a global shipping crisis. What’s next?

China’s economy weakens, then gets even worse and now there’s a global shipping crisis. What’s next?

The world is waking up to the fact that maybe being dependent upon China for its goods is not such a good idea. In 2019 at about the same time the US was closing on the trade deals with China, COVID emerged in China. In 2019 China’s economy was also beginning to slow down. COVID […]

U.S. needs nuclear spacecraft to compete with China, NASA official tells Congress

U.S. needs nuclear spacecraft to compete with China, NASA official tells Congress

A NASA official told Congress on Wednesday that the United States needs more nuclear spacecrafts in order to compete with China. “Strategic competitors including China are aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion,” Bhavya Lal, NASA’s senior advisor for budget and finance, told the House Science, Space, and […]

China shows off drones recycled from Soviet-era fighter jets

China shows off drones recycled from Soviet-era fighter jets

China has for the first time showed off retired 1950s era fighter jets that have been converted to unmanned drones, with satellite photos of two of its east coast bases near Taiwan showing a large number of the jets on site. The People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command published the photos of two Shenyang J-6s […]

China’s propaganda machine is intensifying its ‘people’s war’ to catch American spies

China’s propaganda machine is intensifying its ‘people’s war’ to catch American spies

“Let’s fight a ‘people’s war’ against the spies, so that they cannot move a single step and have no place to hide!” That was the rallying cry of a Chinese military newspaper on social media over the weekend, as Beijing urges public vigilance against American espionage following the launch of a CIA mission center dedicated […]

China’s blackouts break power cutoff pledge

China’s blackouts break power cutoff pledge

As China struggles to control the latest surge of power shortages, the government seems to be hoping that the public will have short memories for how it has dealt with similar problems in the past. After months of downplaying the power crisis and recommending partial fixes, central government authorities belatedly acknowledged the spread of electricity […]

Cadence Column: Asia, October 18, 2021

Cadence Column: Asia, October 18, 2021

According to Chinese and US claims, China has a high-orbit, hypersonic missile that can hit a target within 24 miles. And, that’s why China is the new boss of the world and everyone else should hate America. The end. But, that’s not the end in the mind of Taiwan or the US Pentagon. This week, […]

China ‘making its nuclear submarines harder to detect’

China ‘making its nuclear submarines harder to detect’

China is upgrading its nuclear missile-equipped submarines to make them harder for rival powers such as the US to detect, reports suggest. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has redesigned its type 094 submarines to make them quieter, The South China Morning Post reports. Defence experts believe the Chinese 094 submarine can carry and launch the […]

Could China’s economy collapse?

Could China’s economy collapse?

For almost half a century, Chinese officials have overseen one of the greatest economic transformations in human history. The country has gone from collectivized farms and famine to world-leading tech companies and gleaming megacities connected by superfast trains. More than 800 million Chinese have been pulled out of poverty as the Communist Party and its leader […]

China’s economic crisis is much bigger than expected – its property market, the largest in the world, is collapsing

China’s economic crisis is much bigger than expected – its property market, the largest in the world, is collapsing

The situation in China is much worse than originally thought.  The largest property market in the world is set to collapse and the ramifications will impact the entire world.  We’ve been discussing China’s economic issues for years.  Recently this was even discussed with Steve Bannon on The War Room. We now have information that the […]

%d bloggers like this: