Captain Matthew Webb: first man to swim channel

The original article by Doug Gillon is on The Herald since 2009-01-19

HE was the archetypal English hero of yesteryear, darling of the media which described him in 1875 as "probably the best-known and most popular man in the world".

That accolade was bestowed on Captain Matthew Webb, first man to swim the English Channel, a feat then considered beyond human endeavour without artificial aids.

His 39-mile swim (breaststroke almost all the way) was almost double the straight-line distance. It took nearly 22 hours as he braved a storm, strong currents, and jellyfish stings, sustained on coffee and beer, and mouthfuls of steak. To keep the cold at bay he was smeared in porpoise oil. Passengers and crew on the mail steamer Maid of Kent struck up a chorus of Rule Britannia as he approached the shore neared Cap Gris Nez. Webb later recalled in his diary how emotional he felt on hearing this. "I felt, now I should do it - and I did."


He received a hero's welcome his return home. In those days, endurance in sport was prized beyond mere speed, and this was the supreme challenge. A testimonial fund raised more than £2400, a vast sum.

To this day locals in his native Dawley still refer to The Pig On The Wall. As the Shifnall Brass Band led the parade, legend has it that a pig put its front trotters up on the wall of its sty to watch. Nearly 60 years after Webb's death, Poet Laureat John Betjeman wrote A Shropshire Lad in tribute. It describes the ghost of Webb swimming along the canals of Coalbrookedal on his way to heaven.

Webb was born 161 years ago today, seventh child of a surgeon in the Industrial Revolution heartland of Ironbridge. He learned to swim in the Severn where he once saved one of his brothers from drowning. Young Webb went to sea aged 12, and became a master with the Cunard Line, and once dived overboard in mid-Atlantic in an attempt to rescue a man. Though he failed, he was a national hero, receiving a medal and £100.

In 1873 he had been master of the steamship Emerald when he read about an abortive Channel attempt. He resolved to try himself, quit his job, and started training, first in Lambeth baths, and then in the Thames and the Channel. Success made him wealthy. He won large sums in match races, beating American champion Paul Boyton for the "Championship of the World" in an open water event off Nantasket Beach. He also made £1000 for floating in a tank of water at Boston Horticultural Show for 128 hours.

In July 1883, he pulled on the costume he'd use on his Channel swim, and attempted to swim across the Niagara Falls at the Whirlpool Rapids. Thousands travelled by train to watch, but Webb kept it from his wife. He would have collected £12,000, but his head was dashed against the rocks by the torrent and his body was found down river four days later.

The brother whose life he saved unveiled a memorial to him 100 years ago. The inscription reads: "Nothing Great is Easy".

Webb's picture on match boxes was said to be the inspiration for Inspector Clouseau.