Captain Webb 1848 - 1883
Captain Matthew Webb, born on 19 January 1848 at Dawley in Shropshire, was the first person to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids! In August 1875 he swam the 26 miles from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours.
Before his big swim Webb was in the merchant navy. 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. He became inspired to try himself!
From today's perspective, where swimming the channel has become a long established tradition, it is difficult to imagine what onlookers must have thought when a man dragged himself onto the shore at Calais.
Was this man a shipwrecked sailor or man thrown overboard for some terrible misdemeanour?
No this was in fact Captain Matthew Webb.
Centuries prior to Webb's achievement, this task was considered beyond the tolerances of human endurance.
On 24 August 1875 after one failed attempt he began a second swim by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Webb, dressed in a Victorian one-piece bathing costume leapt into the sea, his body smeared with porpoise oil for insulation.
The crossing took 21 hours and 45 minutes to compete and it is estimated that if you take into account the tidal currants and allowing for his zig-zag course of adjustments to the direction Webb actually swam a total of 39 miles.
This remarkable man was born in the Shropshire town of Dawley. He was the eldest of 12 children born to Dr Webb and his wife Sarah. The family moved from Dawley to nearby Coalbrookdale when Webb was still quite young. The new house was situated very close to the River Severn, which flowed quickly through the Ironbridge Gorge. Webb's father gave all his children repeated warnings about swimming in the dangerous currents that had claimed many lives.
However the young Matthew Webb found the idea of swimming in the currents too tempting and it was due to the strength of the current that Webb become such a strong swimmer.
After Webb left school he became a ships master with the Cunard line, but he continued with his fascination of swimming. He began to contemplate a swimming marathon between Britain and France.
Webb trained for months before finally feeling that he was up the task.
When word of Webb's achievement spread to Britain he became an overnight hero and made a triumphant return to his home town, where large crowds of locals had gathered to welcome him amidst a carnival atmosphere. Very quickly Webb's achievement had been heard of all over the world, which raised the profile of swimming as a competitive sport.
Webb then gave up his career to take up professional endurance swimming, where he could enter competitions or other feats of strength. He gained large sums of money for taking in part in races in the United States including the 'World Championship Race' at Nantasket Beach where he easily beat the US champion. He licensed his name for merchandising, wrote a book called The Art of Swimming and had world-wide fame. He participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
Boosted with self confidence in his own abilities, Webb accepted a challenge to swim across the river directly beneath Niagara Falls. He hoped to earn a $12,000 fortune by swimming across the water on July 20th 1883. On 24 July 1883 he jumped into the river from a small boat and began his swim.
Shortly after swimming away from the bank, Webb was lost in a mist of water. Within 10 minutes he had become caught in the current and was dragged under by a whirlpool. As time passed by Webb failed to reappear, and despite searches it was clear that he had been lost. Four days passed before his mangled body was found some distance downstream and is now buried at Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls.
Allegedly, Webb had not informed his wife of his intension to swim at Niagara and he is supposed to have said to the crowds "If I die, they will do something for my wife".
Following Webb's death, much merchandise celebrating his exploits was created. Commemorative mugs, plates and vases by the thousand where distributed across the world.
Despite Webb's body being buried at Niagara, there are still a number of sites in Dawley and the nearby area that are connected with Captain Webb. In 1909, Webb's older brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley High Street (not far from his now demolished birthplace). On it reads the short inscription: "Nothing great is easy ". Whilst in nearby Coalbrookdale stands Holy Trinity Church in which the Webb family attended services every Sunday. Webb's parents are buried in the graveyard and inside the church is a commemorative plaque to Captain Webb and his achievements.
Further down the valley is Eastfield House (now renamed Dale End House) which was the Webb family home.
A little further down the valley lies the world's first Iron Bridge, and standing on top of it, it becomes easy to imagine a young Webb, swimming in the River Severn, learning his craft as he struggles against the current.
Footnote: Peter Sellers said that the up-right, gentlemanly and correct nature of his character Chief Inspector Clouseau was actually inspired by Capt Webb's famous image on the England's Glory match box. We are not sure whether Capt Webb would be flattered by this or not considering Clouseau's ineptitude!