Monday, January 06, 2014

Conquering the Channel

A Caricature of Captain Matthew Webb (Vanity Fair, 9 October 1875) shortly after his conquest of the English Channel

With the failure of J B Johnson's attempt on the English Channel, interest in the possibility of a successful crossing grew. By the middle of the '70s, it had reached fever pitch and another attempt was soon to be made. This time the swimmer was Matthew Webb or, as he was more commonly styled, Captain Webb. Webb had read of Johnson's earlier attempt and obviously felt that he could succeed where his predecessor had failed. At the time, Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald.

The young Matthew Webb had come to the sea through childhood stories of adventure under sail and, at the age of twelve, he left home to sign on as a merchant seaman. He spent three years aboard the training ship, Conway where he was already noted for his staying power as a swimmer.  Kathy Watson, in her biography of Webb, The Crossing, quotes one of his colleagues aboard the Conway,
We thought very little of him as a swimmer but admired his staying power.  He could swim about for an hour without putting his foot to the floor, although in a race he was nowhere.
The water apparently held no fear for him and even as a trainee,  as Watson points out, he won a silver pencil for rescuing another boy who had fallen overboard. Rescuing, or at least attempting to rescue, people from drowning was to have a significant impact on Webb's life.  In 1873, as second mate aboard the Cunard Ship, Russia, travelling from New York to Liverpool the 25 year old Webb jumped overboard in an attempt to rescue a seaman who had fallen from the rigging.  Unfortunately, the sailor was not seen again and only his cap was recovered.  After half-an-hour in the water, Webb was brought back on board the steamer.  For his bravery he was awarded both the silver medal of the Royal Humane Society and its newly created Stanhope Medal. Sadly, in 1989, all of Webb's medals, including the Stanhope and the Royal Humane Society Medal were sold at auction to a private collector for  £12,650.
The man with his medals
Webb's first attempt to swim the English Channel  was made on 12 August 1875.  At the time he was, according to the volume, Swimming, in the Badminton Library,
5 ft. 8 in. high, measured 43 in. round the chest, and weighed about fourteen and a half stone. ...During his training he once swam out to the north-east Varne Buoy, which is more than half-way across the Channel, and also from Dover to Ramsgate, about eighteen miles, in 8 hrs. 45 mins., as well as in the Thames from Blackwall to Gravesend in 4 hrs. 52 mins.
The Channel attempt was widely covered in the newspapers of the day with many of them relaying reports from their local correspondents.  At just before five in the evening, Webb was liberally coated in  a yellow fatty oil obtained from porpoises.  Fair weather and calm seas were expected and at just a minute or two before five the swimmer entered the water.  According to the London Daily News, "he commenced his journey amid a round of cheers."  Despite expectations of fine weather, a breeze had sprung up and the water was beginning to roughen.

Webb set off briskly, covering the first quarter mile in ten minutes using a breast stroke, but the weather began to turn and just before midnight, after swimming about thirteen and a half miles in just over 6 hours and 48 minutes and  despite feeling "warm and quite well," he decided not to continue saying that "it was impossible for any mortal man to swim as far again in such a sea."  According to The Times, in the opinion of those accompanying him, "had the weather been fine he would have succeeded in reaching the French coast."

Webb and his team watched the weather carefully and planned another assault on the Channel.  Monday, 23 August looked good for a midnight departure but the weather forced a further delay until the following day. At just before one in the afternoon, Webb dived from the end of Admiralty Pier and headed for France.

Admiralty Pier, Dover
Using his slow breast stroke, he made such progress that the lugger which accompanies him across as before, although it had all sail set, had to put out oars and row to keep up with him.   Two rowing-boats follow him with the referees and a young man who is ready at any moment to plunge into the sea to render Captain Webb any assistance he may require.
Swimming at 23 strokes to the minute, Webb made good progress initially but the length of time in the water, the coldness, the stings of jellyfish and the tide which forced him to swim a much greater distance than he had anticipated all began to tell on the swimmer.   After just over 21 hours and 45 minutes, the exhausted swimmer dragged himself ashore in France. Kathy Watson describes the moment when,
Exhausted, delirious, his face encrusted with salt, one eye blind from the waves, his body rigid and greasy like a lump of cold wax, Webb stood, stumbled and fell, lifeless, into the waiting arms of his friends.
Webb recovered quickly and within days was being lionized.  Early in September he visited the Baltic, the Stock Exchange and attended the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts.  Subscription lists were started for him and he was an honoured guest at the officers' mess of the Royal Artillery.  Although not a good speaker (he was described as speaking in a "brief, genial but not too fluent manner which is usually associated with sailors") he strongly advocated the teaching of swimming, telling one group according to the Manchester Times that
he considered it very important that more people should be able to swim than at present: and if in swimming across the Channel he had caused people to think more of teaching their boys to swim he should be well satisfied with what he had done.
It didn't take long for the enterprising book market to cash in on Webb's fame.  Within days The Channel Feats of Captain Webb and Captain Boynton was on the market.  Only 64 pages in length, it featured  "a dashing picture of Captain Webb bravely breasting his way across the Channel." Reviewed in The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of 11 September 1875, it was described as a "seasonal little book" and one which "provides the reader with a complete account ... as well as a brief memoir of Webb and Boynton."

Webb's face was soon well known throughout the length and breadth of the land. Here was a real hero, a conqueror of the most elemental forces. His image appeared on mugs and cups, on matchboxes and other innumerable forms of ephemera.


As if that was not enough, advertisements featuring his image appeared on walls and song sheets praising his valour and his accomplishments were available.

"Ghost" sign on a wall

Song Sheet

The chorus to the 1875 song, "Captain Matthew Webb or Swimming from England to France," seemed to capture the public approbation engendered by the feat.
Hurrah! for Captain Matthew Webb, the hero of the age,
His noble name shall always fill a space in History's page ...
For the next few years Webb was in and out of the news.  Various swimming exhibitions and competitions both in England and in the United States either failed to materialize or were less satisfactory than the swimmer might have wished.  finally, in July of 1883, just short of eight years after his magnificent Channel crossing, he made one final attempt to regain the stature he so desired.  For a fee of $10,000 he undertook to swim the rapids and whirlpool at Niagara Falls.  The funds were put up by various railway companies in the hope that such an attraction would draw crowds to the scene requiring them to run special trains.

Despite attempts to discourage him, Webb entered the water from a small boat.  According to Reuter's,
on entering the rapids [he] was almost turned over by the force of the water.  He swam the rapids, however with great determination, being now and again caught sight of by a few of the spectators.  When last seen he was entering the whirlpool, and at first appeared to be doing well, but very shortly afterwards threw up his arms and disappeared.
When Queen Victoria heard the news, she wrote in her Journal on the 27th of July, "the celebrated swimmer, Capt: Webb was drowned while trying to swim across the rapids at Niagara, very shocking."

The very next day, July 28th, His body was recovered from the river.  It was Captain Webb's last swim.

 Despite his latter years, nobody would ever be able to take away from Matthew Webb the glory of having been the first to swim the English Channel.  Over the years many others attempted to duplicate his feat, but it was not until 36 years later that Thomas William Burgess succeeded in swimming from Dover to Gris Nez in 22 hours and 35 minutes.  In the years between the two successful swims, there had been more than eighty attempts; all of which ended in failure. Certainly for the 36 years between Burgess's and Webb's crossings, the Badminton Library's volume on Swimming was not wrong when it said Webb's triumph was "the greatest authenticated long-distance swim in the sea without any artificial aid."

While Captain Webb may have faded from popular memory, only to be known to Channel swimmers and historians, he did manage to reappear from time to time. In 1940, John Betjeman (later to be appointed Poet Laureate by Queen Elizabeth II) wrote "A Shropshire Lad," in which he has Webb's ghost swimming back to his home in Dawley along the canal. In a completely different context, the American cartoonist and creator of the comic strip, "Pogo," Walt Kelly briefly paid tribute to the swimmer in his strip in 1968.

The full "Pogo" comic strip can be seen by clicking here.
To hear "Tom O'Bedlam's reading of John Betjeman's "A Shropshire Lad," click here.

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