Matthew Webb was born January 19, 1848 in England.
Webb loved swimming and the water so at the age of 12 he joined the merchant navy and served a 3 year apprenticeship.
While serving as second mate on the Cunard Line ship Russia, traveling from New York to Liverpool, he attempted to rescue a man overboard by diving into the sea in the mid-Atlantic. The man was never found, but Webb’s daring won him an award of £100 and the Stanhope Medal.
Then, in the summer of 1863, while at home, Matthew rescued his 12 year old brother Thomas from drowning.
Webb soon became a hero of the British press.
In 1873 Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald when he read an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson to swim the English Channel.
Webb became inspired to try the feat himself, and quit his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames and finally the English Channel itself.
On August 12, 1875 Webb made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt. Webb began his swim at five o’clock in the afternoon but a storm, strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim after being in the water six hours and forty-nine minutes.
(Photo above) – Matthew Webb is sustained with hot coffee during his first ever channel swim.
At four minutes before one in the afternoon of August 24, 1875 Webb began a second swim by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Backed by three escort boats and smeared in porpoise oil, he set off into the neap tide at a steady breaststroke.
Webb swam stoutly until nine in the evening, when he became rather faint, but he rallied and carried on.
At day-break the next morning the French coast was in sight, but the wind and tide turned to the east and he was unable to make shore until five hours later when he had drifted opposite Calais.
Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents, finally, after 21 hours and 45 minutes, Webb landed thoroughly exhausted near Calais — completing the first ever successful cross-channel swim.
Webb’s zig-zag course across the Channel covered over 39 miles.
After his record swim Webb basked in national and international adulation, and began a career as a professional swimmer.
Webb licensed his name for merchandising such as commemorative pottery, and even wrote a book called The Art of Swimming.
A brand of matches was also named after him.
Webb participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
On April 27, 1880 Matthew Webb married Madeline Kate Chaddock, and together they would have two children, Matthew and Helen.
Webb’s final stunt was to be a dangerous swim through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls, a feat many observers considered suicidal.
Although Webb failed in an attempt at raising interest in funding the event, on July 24, 1883 he jumped into the river from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began his swim.
Most accounts of the time indicate that in all likelihood Webb successfully survived the first part of his swim, but died in the section of the river located near the entrance to the whirlpool.
Webb was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York.
In 1909, Webb’s elder brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley.
On it reads the short inscription:
“Nothing great is easy.”
The memorial was taken away for repair after a lorry collided with it in February 2009.
Webb’s landmark memorial was returned after full restoration and was hoisted back onto its plinth in Dawley High Street in October 2009.
Now WE know em
- What’s the best possible English Channel record? (loneswimmer.com)