On this day in history : 19th January 1848 – The birth of Matthew Webb, the English swimmer and diver who was the first recorded person to swim the English Channel….

Captain Matthew Webb
Captain Matthew Webb, July 1883 – Illustrated London News – Royal Museums Greenwich CC BY-SA 3.0

Webb was born in Dawley, near to Telford in Shropshire, he was one of twelve children….and he learned to swim in the River Severn…. At the age of 12 he joined the training ship HMS Conway and then two years later the Merchant Navy….

It was whilst serving as 2nd Mate on the Cunard Line’s ‘Russia’ that Webb was to become a hero…. The ship was sailing between New York and Liverpool when a man went overboard mid-Atlantic…. With no hesitation Webb dived in to try and save him…. His attempt was unsuccessful – but his heroic effort saw him rewarded with £100 for his bravery and awarded the Stanhope Medal – (an award which is given annually by the UK’s Royal Humane Society for the year’s most heroic rescue)…. Webb also became a celebrity because of the attention bestowed upon him by the Press…. Incidentally, this was not to be the only time Webb was to jump into the water in order to try and save a life…. He saved his own older brother, Thomas, from drowning in the River Severn in the Summer of 1863….

Webb became Captain of the steamship ‘Emerald’ – and one day in 1873 he read of the failed attempt by J.B. Johnson to swim the English Channel – and he decided he had to try himself…. So he left his job and began to train…. Initially he started at the Lambeth Baths but then progressed to the River Thames, Hollingworth Lake in Derbyshire and the English Channel itself….

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Hollingworth Lake, Derbyshire

Webb’s first attempt, on the 12th of August 1875, was unsuccessful due to high winds and rough seas…. Twelve days later, on the 24th of August, he set off again from Admiralty Pier, Dover – greased-up in porpoise oil and flanked by three escort boats…. He continued his swim at a steady breaststroke, taking a zig-zag route across the Channel of nearly 40 miles long…. Despite being stung by jelly fish and being prevented from reaching the French shore because of strong currents for some five hours, he eventually arrived at the beach just outside Calais after 21 hours and 45 minutes in the water….

Webb became a national hero, the public loved him and he basked in the glory…. He went on to pursue a professional swimming career – particularly as a stunt swimmer…. One of his stunts involved floating in a tank of water for 128 hours….

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Cariacture of Webb by Vanity Fair’s ‘Ape’ – published in 1875 – Carlo Pellegrini – Public domain

But his final stunt was one that many considered to be complete madness….an attempt to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids just below Niagara Falls…. On the 24th of July 1883 he launched himself into the Niagara River from a small boat and began to swim…. He died in a section of the river near to the entrance of the whirlpool…. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls….

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