August 25, 1875 — At 10.41 on the morning of this day, 27-year-old Matthew Webb, exhausted and suffering from delirium, put his feet on the beach at Calais. He had been in the water nearly 22 hours but had become the first person to swim across the Channel from England to France without artificial aids.
His achievement was celebrated all over the world. It brought him instant fame and he received a hero’s welcome wherever he went.
Webb was born in the English Midlands at Dawley, Shropshire, in 1848, one of 12 children produced by Thomas and Sarah Webb. His father was a doctor.
At the age of 12, Matthew enrolled as a sea cadet with the naval training ship HMS Conway in Liverpool. He became an experienced sailor and throughout his years at sea became a very good swimmer. He eventually became a captain with the Cunard shipping line.
Before that he demonstrated his heroism while serving as Second Mate aboard the Cunard steamer ‘Russia’ which was sailing from New York to Liverpool in 1873.
During a gale in mid-Atlantic a crewman was washed overboard and Webb dived in, trying to rescue him. He was in the water for 37 minutes, close to being lost. Webb failed to find the sailor but he was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Humane Society of Great Britain and he became a national hero.
He resigned from Cunard the following year having decided to seek fame and fortune as a professional endurance swimmer. Captain Webb’s exploits over the following eight years led one newspaper to describe him as “probably the best known and most popular man in the world”.
His popularity soared when he conquered the English Channel. After covering himself with porpoise oil to fend off the cold, he dived off Admiralty Pier, Dover, at 1pm on August 24, 1875, and swam towards Calais, trailed by a flotilla of three boats. An artist from the Illustrated London News was aboard one of them.
Captain Webb was stung by jellyfish eight hours into his swim, but he carried on after receiving brandy from a supporter in one of the boats. It was said that at one stage he also paused for a cup of tea, served while he was treading water.
Finally, after 21 hours and 45 minutes of swimming, often against the tide, he waded onto the beach at Calais at 10.41am, the morning after he set out. Having swum the equivalent of 39 miles (62km), he was helped ashore and boarded a waiting carriage that took him to a hotel.
A hero's welcome wherever he went was enjoyable and flattering but Webb needed money. And so for the next few years, as well as treading the lecture circuit, he took part in various races and stunts.
He beat the United States champion, Paul Boyton, in a much publicised race off Natasket Beach in the town of Hull, Massachusetts. But Webb had a wider repertoire and performed feats such as floating in London’s Westminster Aquarium for 60 hours. He repeated the performance at the Boston Horticultural Show a year later, where this time he floated in a tank for 128 hours!
Then, on July 24, 1883, Captain Webb attempted his final stunt: he was offered $2,000 if he could successfully swim through the Whirlpool Rapids of Niagara Falls. Friends tried to talk him out of it saying it was suicide, but his reckless determination prevailed.
Thousands watched as the swimmer plunged into the river and headed towards the mighty rapids. Unfortunately, his friends were right and Webb drowned after being sucked down by a whirlpool about 10 minutes after entering the water.
One visitor to the Falls later commented: “It truly is crazy to think a person could survive at the foot of that mad, loud, gargantuan crush of water. It’s like the weight of heaven itself descending all at once.”
It was four days before Captain Webb’s mangled body was recovered. He was buried at nearby Oakwood Cemetery.
In a special edition the Illustrated London News reported the death of “the bravest and greatest of swimmers”.
Published: August 9, 2020