Matthew Webb, a 27-year-old merchant navy captain, becomes the first known person to successfully swim the English Channel. Captain Webb accomplished the grueling 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 honor 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 traveling 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 acclimatized 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 honored 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 traveled 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 traveling 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.”