Channel swim hero Capt Webb who met his end at Niagara Falls

The original article (with picture) is posted on Evening Courier on 2009-03-26

CAPTAIN Matthew Webb made history when he became the first man to swim the English Channel in 1875.
Sadly, only eight years later Capt Webb was dead – drowned while attempting a dangerous swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls.

Mention of this story in the Courier brought a letter from Sandra Whitehead, of Halifax, who recalled the sad aftermath of the Channel hero's death. Mrs Whitehead, of the Hough, Northowram, writes: "Reading about Matthew Webb's death in 1883 brought back to me our family connection.

"As a girl I used to listen to my mother and nan telling me that, some time after Capt Webb's death, the newspapers ran a story of how his two daughters were living in squalor and how they had been left without proper care after their father's death.

"My great, great uncle Jack and his wife felt sorry for the girls and eventually brought them to England and adopted them. They grew up with the couple in or near Thornaby on Tees.

"One of the girls, called Sarah, I believe, married here but sadly died in childbirth. The other sister returned to Canada.

"I often wonder what happened to the child; whether it died with its mother and what happened to the sister who went back to Canada."

Matthew Webb, a Shropshire lad, joined the Merchant Navy and in 1873, while captain of the steamship Emerald, read of a failed attempt by J B Johnson to swim the Channel.

Inspired to try himself, he left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames and the Channel.

On August 12, 1875, he made his first attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon it.

Twelve days later he began a second swim from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Smeared in porpoise oil, he set off at a steady breaststroke.

Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez, which delayed him for five hours, finally, after 21 hours and 45 minutes, he landed near Calais. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles long.

Webb basked in international adulation and became a professional swimmer, taking part in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.

His final stunt, to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls, was considered by many to be suicidal.

On July 24, 1883, he began his swim but he died near the entrance to the whirlpool. His body was discovered downstream four days later.