With the growth of leisure time in the later years of Victoria's reign, the variety of sports both for participants and spectators grew rapidly. Men and women competed against time, the elements and one-another. Much was conquered but much remained and in 1870 the English Channel retained its mystique and its reputation as being unconquerable - at least by swimmers. There was something special about this fascinating body of water. It was, after all, what divided England from the European continent and was, to use William Shakespeare's image, part of "a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands."
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
William Shakespeare, "ing Richard II, Act 2 scene 1
The English Channel had always been part of the great defensive net around England and while it was regularly crossed by boat, experience had shown that it was a bulwark against invasion. But by the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was becoming easier to cross. The first balloon passage took place as early as January of 1785 when Jean-Pierre Blanchard, with the American, Dr. John Jeffries, navigated from England to France in about 2½ hours.
Thirty years later, in March of 1815, the steamship Élise in a harrowing seventeen hour crossing conquered the Channel for steam. But it was not until 1872 that the first recorded attempt to swim the English Channel took place. The swimmer, J B Johnson, lasted for only three minutes more than an hour before abandoning the effort.
Johnson was a professional swimmer based in Leeds who came to prominence in 1871 when he won the swimming championship at the Welsh Harp Lake at Hendon in the teeth of a driving hailstorm and in front of a crowd of three or four hundred spectators. The Times described him, at the time, as "undoubtedly the best swimmer [in] England." Johnson had already attracted some interest and attention in the press when, a few days earlier, he had leapt from London Bridge apparently to rescue a gentleman who had fallen from a Thames Steamer. According to The Badminton Library volume on Swimming, this "afterwards turned out to be a mere exhibition. Johnson dived to rescue a drowning person, the said 'drowning person' being his brother Peter, who was nearly as good a swimmer as the famous J. B., and a capital stayer under water."
In August of the following year, Johnson attempted to swim the English Channel. He clearly realised the value of publicity and a few days before his attempt had posted placards around Dover from where the swim was to originate. The placards announced that the "hero of London-bridge and champion swimmer of the world" would swim from England to France. Such a feat was generally deemed to be impossible, although there were stories of three escaped French political prisoners attempting to swim to England. Two were supposed to have completed the swim, one of whom died almost immediately thereafter while the other survived and lived in Dover for a number of years. But the attempt by Johnson was not to be one of rumor or half-truth; it would be thoroughly documented.
At the time, Johnson was twenty-four years old and a superb physical specimen as well as being captain of the prestigious Serpentine (swimming) Club in London.
Johnson's attempt came about as a result of a bet placed in Leeds, his home town, at odds of 1000 pounds to 30 pounds, a wager which was quickly doubled. Having already made his mark as a swimmer, he must have realised that a successful crossing of the Channel would raise him even further in the eyes of both the public and the swimming fraternity. Always aware of the power of publicity, in addition to the placards which had been placed around Dover, Johnson hired the brass band of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens to play at the start of his swim. A steamer, the Palmerston, was engaged to accompany him. He was cheered by a crowd estimated by the Times's correspondent at thousands when he dove into the water from the steamer at 10:40 am on Saturday, 24 August. After an hour, however, it became clear he would be unable to go on. He took some port wine at 11:20 and again at 11:30 while still in the water, but by 11:45 he was out of the water and on the deck of the steamer.
According to the Times, when he was pulled aboard, his legs were numb from the thighs down and he was suffering from hypothermia to such a degree he was even unable to drink some of the beef-tea which was proferred. Nonetheless, always the showman, when the Palmerston arrived at Calais at 3:00 pm, he, and his brother who was accompanying him, "dived into the water, one from each side of the boat, and delighted the spectators anxiously awaiting his arrival with various specimens of aquatic skill."
While perhaps not achieving the fame he sought, Johnson certainly was the subject of much adulation. Despite his failed attempt at the Channel, a popular song, "I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson, was soon being heard.
The other day he tried to swim,
To Calais right from Dover,
The task seem'd easy unto him.
When seven miles were over,
Right through the sea, he seem'd to fly,
He stop'd, tho' not through failure,
When I can swim, you'll see I'll try,
To go right to Australia.
Two of the verses refer to his feat at London Bridge and his failed attempt on the Channel, neither of which seemed to, in any way, to lower his popular appeal. But it was not until three years later that the English Channel was finally conquered, not by J. B. Johnson, but by Captain Matthew Webb.
To see the whole song, I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson, click here.