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Tuesday
Jul192011

Capt. Matthew Webb - First man to swim the English Channel

Capt. Matthew WebbFor 21 hours and 45 minutes Capt. Matthew Webb tested his strength and endurance against the currents and creatures of the English Channel.  In the end, he had done what no man before him had done.  He conquered the English Channel without the use of artificial aids and emerged in Calais France a hero. His adventure on August 25, 1875 helped seal his name in minds of Brits and made him an icon in swimming circles.   He already had a track record for heroics.  Early in his career as a second mate aboard the Cunard Line ship "Russia" he dove into the mid Atlantic ocean in attempt to rescue a passenger.  The man was never found, but his actions won him the Stanhope Medal and 100 pounds.

After his swim across the Channel, he became quite a celebrity of his day. He would put on swimming exhibitions and stunts.  In 1883 as his fame and fortune was fading, he traveled to Niagara Falls in an attempt to conquer the lower Niagara River rapids.  This was to be his come-back stunt, but, many considered it to be a suicide mission.  

 

Stained Glass from The Champion, Sam Smith's Pub on Wells Street, London.

 

This poster can be ordered from AllPosters.com

In a 1955 Sports Illustrated article it was written, "As McCloy rowed slowly downstream he asked his passenger if he had a family and how much money he had left from the Channel swim.  "Most of it is gone," Webb answered. "Well," said McCloy, "if I was you I'd go ashore and keep the rest." There was no reply and the two men went on in silence, as far down as the ferryman dared take the skiff.

Just before 4pm on July 24th the Capt. jumped out of a small boat in swam into the rapids.  He wore the same bathing suit he wore in the English Channel  There is controversy as to whether he made it through the rapids alive, some say he did, only to be sucked under in the whirlpool.  Regardless, the Capt. had disappeared within 4 minutes.  His battered body was recovered four days later in Lewiston.  He didn't drown, there were no broken bones, official cause of death was listed as "crushing" from the sheer pressure of the water.  

In 1909 the Capt's brother Thomas placed a monument in his home town of Dawley.  The inscription reads "Nothing great is easy".  There is also a bust of the Capt. in Dover.  

Click here for a poem about our Capt. Webb, make sure your speakers are on so you can hear the musical version.

 

The Capt. is located in the "Stranger's Rest" section of Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, NY.  He is in the same row as Annie Edson Taylor, first person over the Falls in a barrel.  Carlisle Graham, first person through the Whirlpool Rapids (the very same ones that Capt. Webb tried to swim) in a barrel.  And Francis Abbot the "Hermit of Niagara".  A colorful character from the mid 1800's.  Also nearby is John Rish our oldest burial having died in 1805 at the age of 15.  To get to "Stranger's Rest" take a right when you come in the gate.  Follow Greenwood Avenue on the right all the way until you come to a Y in the road.  All the above are 2 to 3 rows back from the tip of the Y.

Captain Webb: The Art Of Swimming from Robert Milne on Vimeo.