Captain Matthew Webb – the first Person to swim the Channel

Captain Matthew Webb - Monument (detail), Marine Parade. Alan Sencicle 2009

Captain Matthew Webb – Monument (detail), Marine Parade. Alan Sencicle 2009

In the gardens at the front of the Gateway Flats on Marine Parade is a monument to Captain Matthew Webb (1848-1883), the first person to swim the English Channel without artificial aids. The latter is important for on Friday 28 May 1875 Paul Boyton (1848-1924), successfully crossed the Channel from Boulogne in 23 hours 30 minutes. Boyton wore a novel airtight suit made of vulcanised rubber, the prototype of the modern wet suit. He propelled himself, lying on his back, feet first using a paddle. When he became tired of paddling, Boyton used a small sail fixed to the sole of one of his boots. Captain Webb did not have any artificial aids when he made the crossing on 24-25 August 1875.

Matthew Webb was born at Irongate, near Dawley, Shropshire on 18 January 1848, where his father was a local doctor. Webb learnt to swim when he was 7 years old and when he grew up trained to become a mariner on board the Conway sail training ship moored on the Mersey. Knowing himself to be a strong swimmer, while traversing the Suez Canal a hawser was fouling the ship, Webb dived under and cleared the towrope.

Then on 23 April 1873, while serving as second mate on the Cunard ship, Russia travelling from New York to Liverpool, a sailor fell from aloft into the sea. The ship was running before the wind under steam and canvas at the rate of 15knots but Webb jumped in and attempted to rescue the man. Although not successful, the attempt earned Webb £100 from a collection made by the passengers, the Stanhope Gold Medal and made him a celebrity when he arrived back in England.

Shortly after Webb was appointed captain of the steamship Emerald and while on board, he read of a failed attempt to swim the Channel by J. B. Johnson on 24 August 1872. Johnson had given up after 1 hour and 3 minutes. Soon after Captain Webb resigned his post to become a professional swimmer and started training at Lambeth swimming baths and in the Thames. When satisfied with his progress, Webb came to Dover and stayed at the Flying Horse Inn, King Street. In June 1874, Webb swam from the Admiralty Pier to the North East Varne Buoy a distance of 11 statute miles. He returned to London and swam from Blackwall Pier to Gravesend Town Pier, a distance of 18 miles. In July, Webb was welcomed back to the Flying Horse Inn by the landlord, James Ball and Webb’s support team of locals. On 19 July he swam from Dover to Ramsgate, a distance of 19½ miles. Webb then turned his attention to his ‘experiment’ – to find out if it was possible to swim the Channel.

Admiralty Pier before the extension was built. It was from here that Webb started his 'experiment'.

Admiralty Pier before the extension was built. It was from here that Webb started his ‘experiment’.

It was a pleasant afternoon on 12 August 1872, when at 16.58 the 5-foot 8-inch tall Captain Webb, having anointed himself with porpoise oil, dived into a calm sea off the Admiralty Pier. The tide was in flood and a lugger and two rowing boats accompanied him. Webb swam eastwards towards South Sands Head buoy, where he hoped to get the benefit of an ebb tide that would carry him westward towards the Varne. From there, he hoped that the current would help him get to France. Every hour Webb was given sandwiches washed down with old ale and coffee by one of his support team. However, at 22.00hrs, the wind got up and there was a heavy storm. By 23.45hrs, the sea was so rough that Webb was forced to abandon the project and climb aboard the lugger. He had swum 15½ statute miles. It was another twelve days before the weather was favourable but the media saw the delay as an excuse for not going ahead with the experiment.

At 12.56½hrs on Tuesday 24 August 1875, smeared with porpoise oil, Captain Webb again dived into the Channel from the end of Admiralty Pier to test his experiment that it was possible to swim to France in one go. On the Pier’s Turret, which was in the course of construction, some 300-400 bystanders cheered him on. Webb started with the wind, tide and weather in his favour and was accompanied by three support vessels. His brother and cousin were on one and in charge of Webb’s refreshments. There was also his local support team including Benjamin Brown, who helped in the preparation, Webb’s pilot, George Toms of the Shakespeare Inn – Elizabeth Street and John Bavington Jones, editor of the Dover Express, who afterwards published the authoritative narrative of the swim: Across the Strait. Reporters from the national press and representatives of the Land and Water Magazine – a sporting gazette – were on board as referees.

Webb’s swimming technique was described as him laying on his chest with his arms out straight in front, the palms of his hands touching. He then drew up his legs followed by stretching them out behind him until he was straight from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes. Webb then brought his hands and arms back in a graceful curve. His arms and legs were never in motion at the same time. He also kept his head down putting his mouth and nose slightly under the water with every stroke and blowing porpoise fashion when his head was out of the water.

The current carried Webb in a westerly direction towards the Varne bank, which he hoped to reach by the time the tide turned that would then take him to France. At midnight, one of the passengers on a steamer that had just berthed in Dover reported that at 22.00hrs Webb was seen fourteen miles off Dover which was then bearing west-north-west swimming strongly and in ‘capital spirits’. The weather that evening was fine, the wind calm and the sea smooth such that the lugger accompanying Webb had to be rowed. At 23.47hrs, a Reuter’s telegram was sent from Boulogne and stated: ‘the night is beautifully calm, with a slight haze on the horizon, but clear over head. Everything is just as desired for the success of Captain Webb’s experiment.’

Chart of Captain Matthew Webbs swim 24-25 August 1875 drawn in 1910 after the building of Admiralty Harbour

Chart of Captain Matthew Webbs swim 24-25 August 1875 drawn in 1910 after the building of Admiralty Harbour

At about the same time as the telegram was sent, the passengers and crew of a Dover ferry, on its way to Calais, passed Webb and all cheered. One of those in the accompanying rowboats lit a red light that illuminated Webb’s face and this encouraged the passengers and crew to cheer even louder! At 02.00hrs Cap Gris Nez light could be seen but the strong tidal stream took Webb away from the shore. Fatigue seemed to be taking its toll on Webb and having been stung by a jellyfish much earlier in the swim, this was becoming a source of pain. Baker, the 16year-old diver on board one of the rowboats donned in a lifeline and made ready to jump in and rescue Webb if necessary.

By 07.00hrs, the weather had deteriorated and the wind was getting up with the sea becoming increasingly rough. Off Calais, a local ship stood off on Webb’s weather side, acting as a windbreak, but when the tide turned Webb was carried out to sea. At 09.00hrs, young Baker jumped in and encouraged Webb to continue. The sea, by this time, was breaking over the rowboats but Webb persevered and at 10.40hrs, he made landfall half a mile west of Calais utterly exhausted but not delirious as, has been stated elsewhere.

Captain Matthew Webb had made the first successful cross-channel swim without artificial aids! Time taken was 21hours 45 minutes and he had actually swum 39miles (64 kilometres). Once the news travelled there was such euphoria that, according to the New York Times, ‘From the remotest village in the Highlands, down to the lowest slum in Wapping, there is probably not a soul to whom the name of Captain Webb is unknown.’

On reaching land, Captain Webb was too weak to stand so had to be helped by his cousin and two locals to walk slowly up the beach. Once on the road it was obvious that Webb was finding it difficult to keep awake and was taken by carriage to the Hôtel de Paris in Calais. There he was given hot wine and a comfortable bed. The doctor checked Webb’s temperature, which was normal, but his pulse was very slow. After five hours sleep, Webb woke up hot and feverish, his temperature was recorded to be 101ºFahrenheit. After a drink, Webb went back to sleep and when he woke up some hours later, his temperature had returned to normal but he complained of stiffness.

The next day, 26 August, Webb and his team left Calais on the mid-day passage to Dover. On board he was given a berth and was instantly asleep but the doctor reported that Webb was fine. Shortly after arriving in England, Captain Webb was the guest of the Belgium Vice-Consul, W Forster and in the afternoon of the 27 August, was entertained to a garden party. This was organised by the officers of the Royal Artillery based on Western Heights and held at the Royal Oak Hotel, 56 Oxenden Street in the Pier District.

Cartoon depiction of Captain Webb's momentous swim. Dover Library

Cartoon depiction of Captain Webb’s momentous swim. Dover Library

That evening, Webb was the guest of honour at a reception held at the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club, on Marine Parade. The place was packed and the proceedings were led by Dover’s Mayor, Frederick Peirce who was quoted as saying that, ‘In the name of the people of Dover, whose feelings were sure to represent those of the whole English nation, heartily congratulate Captain Webb upon having accomplished the greatest feat in swimming which the world had ever known.’ Captain Webb responded saying that he had been confident that he would succeed as long as he trained and kept himself in peak condition. He hoped that what he had achieved was not altogether useless and that it would, ‘induce people to learn to swim more than formerly. At present many were drowned through being unable to swim a stroke.’ This received rousing cheers.

At the end of October 1875, Webb formally visited his old training headquarters at the Flying Horse Inn on the invitation of Mr Haynes, the secretary of the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club. There Webb was presented a cheque for £42.1s 6d that had been collected by the Yacht Club and in the town. For the occasion the Flying Horse Inn was especially decorated and, it was particularly noted that the bar and parlour maids wore extra ribbons in their hair for the occasion! Of note, the Flying Horse Inn, King Street, closed in 1891 and was demolished soon after. On the site an attractive post office was built but in recent years came into private hands.

Over the next few months, songs were written about Webb and he published his account of the momentous swim. He was also invited to numerous towns and cities where he was presented with financial testimonials. He used each occasion to promote the necessity of learning to swim. However, during this time the number of fatalities from drowning increased significantly. This was due to men boasting that they were equal to Webb and accepting challenges on the basis of bets on accomplishing swimming feats.

In the years that followed, Webb actively participated in lucrative challenges, for instance, in May 1879, a six-day endurance contest was held at Lambeth Swimming Baths. The winner was determined on the number of laps completed between 09.00hrs and 23.00hrs for the duration of the six days. There were valuable prizes on offer and altogether, Webb swam 74 miles, winning the contest. Later that year, Webb visited America and on 13 August swam from Sandy Hook Point to Manhattan Beach, near New York. The distance was 10 miles in a direct line but due to tidal flows, Webb actually swam about 16 miles in a little over 8hours.

Captain Matthew Webb age 24 First person to swim the Channel without artificial aids.

Captain Matthew Webb age 24 First person to swim the Channel without artificial aids.

As a protection from the water Webb used ‘Vaseline’ a new preparation that had only been patented in 1872 and made from petroleum. His contract required that Webb finished at 17.00hrs or as soon after as possible but he actually arrived long before the deadline so was obliged to swim up and down until a rocket was fired to tell him to cross the finishing line! As he swam across the finishing line, Webb was greeted with loud cheers from the audience, all of whom had paid a considerable amount to be there. During this visit to America, Webb participated in a  lucrative publicity stunt at the Horticultural Hall, Boston, where he remained in a tank of water for 128hours.

In March 1880, following his return to England, Webb was paid a substantial fee to swim for 60hours in the tank at the Royal Aquarium, Westminster. On 27 April, he married Madeline Kate Chaddock and they had two children, Matthew and Helen. June 1881 saw Captain Webb back in the Royal Aquarium tank that had been strengthened and lengthened to 20 yards. This time, he was paid £300 plus prize money if he won, to undertake a six-day swim of 10-hours a day against a long time adversary, W Beckwith. Beckwith won the prize money. On 1 October, Webb was back in the water at Hollingworth Lake, Lancashire, where he beat A Jennings in a five-hour swim accomplishing 5 miles 660 yards.

5 May 1883 Webb opened Battersea new baths before leaving for another tour of the US. On arrival, reporters wrote that Webb’s was not as athletic as he had been four years previously, but Webb needed the money to support his growing family. Railway companies put up $10,000 prize money for the first person to swim across the Niagara River below the Falls and Webb accepted the challenge. The swim was arranged for 21 July and special trains were put on as it was expected that 10,000 people would turn up. However, Webb postponed the event and the railway companies lost interest. In fact, Webb was determined to go ahead with the swim.

Webb had been told that the waters, after going over the Falls, enter a deep and narrow gorge creating a fast flowing river averaging 39 miles an hour. That it was jagged rocks, just below the surface, that created the rapids, eddies and a giant whirlpool. Webb said that he thought that the whirlpool was about a quarter of a mile long and that it would take two to three hours to traverse it. On arrival, he examined the crossing, paying particular attention to the whirlpool but said that he felt confident to have the strength to swim it by keeping away from the suck hole in the centre.

On the afternoon of 24 July 1883, even though the Railway Company had not put on special trains, crowds lined the banks of the river and the suspension bridges that crossed it. Webb set out in a small boat from the Canadian side and was rowed by ferryman John McCloy. About 300 yards above the old suspension bridge, he dived in at 16.02hrs. He soon encountered the rapids, where the river narrowed from 500 feet wide to 300 feet. He was tossed around and at one point almost turned over but successfully negotiated them. He then passed through Horseshoe Falls, his speed increasing by the force of the river. Then Captain Matthew Webb entered the whirlpool.

At first Webb appeared to be doing well with onlookers cheering when they caught sight of him. Then he was seen no more. By 18.00hrs, rumour was spreading that Webb had drowned and a search was carried out along the river, but no trace of a body was found. Webb’s body was recovered four days later and was buried at the nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

Captain Matthew Webb - Unveiling of the Dover Memorial by Lord Desborough 3 June 1910 Clarence Lawn. Thanks to David G Atwood

Captain Matthew Webb – Unveiling of the Dover Memorial by Lord Desborough 8 June 1910 Clarence Lawn. Thanks to David G Atwood

Following Webb’s momentous swim across the English Channel, many tried to repeat his success but failed. Because of these constant failed attempts, the enthusiasm was fading along with the memory of Captain Webb. In 1908, Alfred Jonas, a well-known personality in the British sporting circles of the time, decided that something should be done to keep Captain Webb’s memory alive. The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) supported his idea and they asked William Henry Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough (1855-1945), to be the Patron of a Webb Memorial Fund. Lord Desborough was an all round sportsman who had swam the Niagara rapids twice as well as being one of the Oxford eight who had rowed from Dover to Calais in 1885. He was an excellent Patron and soon enough money was raised to commission a memorial from the well-known sculptor, Francis William Doyle-Jones (1873-1938).

An appropriate site was found on Clarence Lawn in front of the Burlington Hotel, Dover and on 8 June 1910, Lord Desborough unveiled the finished memorial. It is a bronze bust surmounting a plinth of Peterhead granite and has a bronze inscription surrounded by bay leaves and seaweed. The bust is naked with the head turned slightly to the right but with the eyes looking out towards the Channel. The Mayor, Walter Emden, accepted the memorial on behalf of the town, in a grand ceremony. Among the guests were those who had accompanied Captain Webb on the great swim, including the Captain’s brother and cousin.

Captain Matthew Webb  Memorial on Clarence Lawn in front of the Burlington Hotel  c1904 - Adams Collection Dover Museum

Captain Matthew Webb Memorial on Clarence Lawn in front of the Burlington Hotel c1910 – Adams Collection Dover Museum

The monument held pride of place on Clarence Lawn, up until the bombardment of Dover during World War II (1939-1945) when shrapnel chipped the plinth. According to Dover Corporations list, the statue was stored in a local cave for the duration of the War, along with the statue of Charles Rolls – the first person to fly across the Channel both ways non-stop – that had been on the nearby Guilford Lawn.

Following the War, the Webb memorial was repaired and in the summer of 1951 was re-erected at the east end of the promenade near the entrance to the Eastern Dockyard. At that time, the Dockyard was an industrial zone. The Rolls statue was re-erected in March of that year on the Seafront close to the Boundary Groyne. On the 76th anniversary, August 1951, of the Webb’s momentous swim a special service was held at the memorial and wreaths were laid. Among those present were many of those who attempted to swim the Channel that year and Webb’s only surviving relative, Major Harry Chaddock. He was a brother-in-law and lived in Dover.

Captain Matthew Webb memorial in front of the Gateway Flats,  Marine Parade. LS 2010

Captain Matthew Webb memorial in front of the Gateway Flats, Marine Parade. LS 2010

In 1953, after a major change in Dover Harbour Board policy, the Dockyard became the main cross-Channel terminal and was renamed Eastern Docks. Coincidental to this was the rise in the use of the motor car. To cope with the influx of traffic to the Docks the access roads were widened at the expense of the Seafront. Both the Webb and the Rolls memorials were in the way of the new road configuration and in September 1991, the Webb memorial was removed to the Gateway Gardens on Marine Parade – very close to its pre-war site. After a bitter fight, instigated by local historian Budge Adams together with David Atwood, the Rolls statue was eventually moved to the Gateway Gardens.

It was not until 1911 that Thomas Burgess became the second person to succeed in swimming the Channel. Burgess took one hour longer than Captain Webb and it was his thirteenth attempt. The first woman to swim the Channel was Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003), in 1924. The Channel Swimming Association (CSA) was formed in 1926 with the objectives to investigate and authenticate the claims of persons who have swum the English Channel. They certificated Captain Webb’s swim in 1928, although he infringed some rules, notably being accompanied by a lugger and two rowing boats and being sheltered by a boat from the waves near Calais.

Gertrude Ederle, like many of the others who successfully completed the swim, crossed the Channel from France to England. This is advantageous due to the fact that Cap Gris Nez is the closest point to England. The swimmer can leave from this point just before the commencement of the flood tide and aim to be well clear of the strongest tidal streams off the headland. Swimming from England to France, it is very difficult to plan for an arrival off Cap Gris Nez at slack water. Many Channel swimmers have failed due to these strong tidal streams. In 1993, the French authorities banned cross channel swims from their side of the Channel.

Nonetheless, the challenge of swimming the Channel continued to grow. In 1951, Florence Chadwick (1918 -1995) became the first woman to swim from England to France. Ten years later, in 1961, the first two way crossing in one go was achieved by Argentinean, Antonio Aberto. He took 43 hours 10 minutes. In 1981, Jon Erikson (1954-2014), from Chicago, made the first three way swim taking 38 hours 27 minutes. Alison Streeter MBE, has swam the Channel the most number of times, including a triple-channel swim, all of which has earned her the title of Queen of the Channel. These days, nearly every year, over 100 people register to swim the Channel from Dover to France and many are successful.

 'Crest of the Wave' sculpures by Ray Smith 1995 on Dover's Seafront.  Alan Sencicle 2009

‘Crest of the Wave’ sculpures by Ray Smith 1995 on Dover’s Seafront. Alan Sencicle 2009

As a joint initiative between Kent County Council and Dover District Council in 1992, professional artists and designers were invited to submit designs to commemorate cross Channel Swimming. Ray Smith’s sculpture ‘On the Crest of a Wave’ was chosen and can be seen in the centre of the Seafront. They are two blocks of white Portland stone on a bed of green slate. On the top are profiles of swimmers pushing forward into a rising wave of stone and cut from dark green slate.

  • Presented:
  • 20 December 2014


About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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