First Man to Swim the English Channel Capt. Matthew Webb Part 1

About the first man to swim the English Channel Captain Matthew Webb, history and biography of the man who swam from England to France.


On the morning of August 25, 1875, Capt. Matthew Webb of Dawley, Shropshire, 27-year-old master of an English sailing vessel, woke up in a Calais hotel to find himself famous. The day before he had done the impossible: He had swum the English Channel, the 1st person in history to do so. While he slept that night the world heard all about him--how he had plunged off the Admiralty Pier at Dover and had battled current and high seas for 21 3/4 hours over a 50-mi. zigzag course to reach the sands at Calais.

Days of glory awaited the Shropshire lad. At Dover, where a huge throng welcomed him upon his return, the mayor of the city said, "In the future history of the world I don't believe that any such feat will be performed by anyone else." [The mayor of Dover was wrong. The feat would be duplicated and improved upon many times in the years that followed. But still, Matthew Webb was the 1st. Actually, he wasn't really the 1st. Three months earlier, Paul Boyton, U.S., had swum the Channel successfully in 23 hours, 30 minutes--but he wore a life jacket, whereas Webb went it alone. Today, a century later, Webb's time has been cut better than in half. Present record holder: Lieut. Richard Davis Hart, U.S. Army, swam the Channel from England to France on August 21, 1972, in 9 hours, 44 minutes.]

Webb became a national hero. Crowds mobbed him wherever he went. Thousands flocked to see the stocky 5'8" blond captain cleave the waters with the powerful stroke that had conquered the Channel. (Webb used the breaststroke, the crawl being then unknown. At the rate of 25 to 27 strokes a minute, he swam low in the water, with mouth and nose under, blowing porpoiselike as his head emerged.)

Acclaimed as the world's greatest swimmer, Webb toured English resort beaches giving swimming exhibitions and staging feats of endurance. A couple of years of this, however, and interest in him began to slacken. He became more and more of a stunt man and would pick up a few purses by betting that he could stay in the water for a certain number of hours. Once at Scarborough he won pound 400 by swimming about for 74 continuous hours.

In 1881, accompanied by his bride, he moved to the U.S. to bolster his diminishing fortune, but little money came in. In the summer of 1883, his manager Fred Kyle got him booked at Nantasket Beach, Mass., to give daily exhibitions of swimming. The captain was now no longer the shining Shropshire lad who had brought fame to England 8 years before. At 35 he weighed 200 lbs., and his closely cropped hair was thin on top. With him at Nantasket, where he was no great attraction, lived his wife and their 2 small children.

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