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Matthew Webb Challenges the English Channel and Niagara Falls

Het oorspronkelijke en volledige artikel door Kathy Warnes is te vinden op suite101 sinds Dec 26, 2010

Born at Dawley in Shropshire, England, Captain Matthew Webb was one of the twelve children of a doctor from Coalbrookdale. He joined the merchant navy and served a three year apprenticeship in Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool.

Captain Matthew Webb Swims the English Channel in 21 Hours and 45 Minutes

On August 24, 1875, Captain Webb began a second try at an English Channel swim by diving from the Admiralty Pier at Dover, England. Backed by three chase boats and smeared in porpoise oil, he pushed off into the ebb tide at a steady 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 porpoise-like as his head emerged. He faced stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cape Gris Nez. On August 25, 1875, he arrived ata Calais at 11:00 in the morning in good health and spirits, although fatigued. It had taken him 21 hours and 45 minutes to swim across the Channel.

A huge crowd welcomed Captain Webb at Dover when he returned and the mayor of Dover 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’s prophecy didn’t come true. In the future, Captain Webb’s swim would be duplicated and improved upon and despite his cross channel swim being billed as the first, it wasn’t. In May, 1873, American Paul Boyton, who invented and patented the rubber swim suit had successfully swum the English Channel in 23 hours, 30 minutes. He had worn a rubber swim suit and a life jacket, but Captain Webb swam in his birthday suit so his swim was considered an unimpeded, un-technological swim.

A century later, Captain Webb’ s time would be cut in more than half and the Twentieth century record holder, Lt. Richard Davis Hart, U.S. Army, swam the Channel from England to France on August 21, 1972, in 9 hours and 44 minutes.

After his record swim across the English Channel, Captain Webb enjoyed a career as a professional swimmer and continued national and international acclaim. He endorsed such merchandising items as commemorative pottery and wrote a book that he called The Art of Swimming. He took part in exhibition swimming matches and performed stunts like floating in a tank of water for 128 hours, but his fortunes were diminishing.

Captain Webb Loses An Important Swimming Match

On September 15, 1879, at Bath Park on the Hudson River, two small row boats carried contestants and judges for a swimming contest. The first prize was a purse of $1,500 and the second prize $750 for the swimmer making the greatest number of miles up to fifty. The contestants were George H. Wade, William H. Daily, George Werhan, Ernest Von Schoening and Chaptain Matthew Webb. Werhan wore a white cap, Wade a black cap, Von Schoening a red cap and Webb a blue one. Daily wrapped a yellow handkerchief around his head. All the swimmers swam gracefully, taking long, powerful strokes and keeping their heads well out of water.

Captain Matthew Webb held on until the first lap of the seventh mile when he called to be taken out of the water. He had been taken with a severe cramp, and he gave up. At 7:00 Von Schoening left the water, having made seven miles and one lap. The match scores were: Von Schoening, seven and one fifth miles in 3 hours and 55 minutes. Webb, six miles in 5 hours, 16 minutes. Daily four and four-fifth miles in a 4 hours and 14 minutes. Werhan, four and a four-fifth miles in 5 hours, 49 minutes.Wade, three and one---fifth miles in 3 hours, 23 minutes.

Captain Webb Moves to the United States

On April 27, 1880, Captain Webb married Madeline Kate Chaddock and in 1881, they moved to the United States and eventually they had two children - Matthew and Helen. His fortunes continued to diminish and he earned little money. At age 35, Captain Webb weighed 35 pounds and he wore his thinning hair closely cropped. In the summer of 1883, Captain Webb's manager Fred Kyle, secured a booking for him at Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts, to give daily swimming exhibitions.

Then Captain Webb had an idea for a stunt that would restore his lost fame and perhaps his empty coffers. He would swim through the dangerous Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls. He unsuccessfuly tried to interest someone to fund his swim, but he went ahead with it anyway. On July 24, 1883, he jumped into the Niagara River from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began to swim.

The Brooklyn Eagle of July 27, 1883, said that Captain Webb probably survived the first part of his swim, but he died in the section of the Niagara River near the entrance to the whirlpool. Eventually, his body was recovered and an inquest showed that the rocks in the channel below the Suspension Bridge or drowning didn't kill him. Instead, he died from the sheer force of the water on his body. The authorities at Niagara Falls said that the water struck his body with the force of a steam trip hammer. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery at Niagara Falls, New York.

The Brooklyn Eagle of May 20, 1884, reported that the widow of Captain Matthew Webb was at the suspension bridge. She had accepted the position of cashier at the Whirlpool Rapids Park.

In 1909, Captain Matthew Webb's older brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley with the inscription "Nothing great is easy."


* Elderwick, David. Captain Webb. 1987
* Watson, Kathy. The Crossing - The Glorious Tragedy of the First Man to Swim the English Channel. 2000
* Webb, Matthew. The Art of Swimming