First recorded swimming of the English Channel

On August 25, 1875 Captain Matthew Webb was the first recorded person to swim the English Channel. Webb was one of 12 children of a Coalbrookdale doctor, and he learned how to swim in the River Severn. In 1863, 15-year-old Webb rescued his 12-year-old brother Thomas from drowning.

Later while on the crew of a cruise ship, he attempted to rescue a man who had fallen overboard by diving into the mid-Atlantic. The man was never found, but Webb’s daring won him an award of £100 and the Stanhope Medal, and made him a hero of the British press.

In 1873, Webb read an account of a failed attempt to swim the English Channel. He became inspired, left his job as a steamboat captain, and began training. On 12 August 1875, he made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim.

On 24 August, he began a second swim backed by three escort boats and smeared in porpoise oil. Stings from jellyfish and strong currents prevented him from reaching the shore for five hours. But finally after 21 hours and 45 minutes, he landed near Calais. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles (64 km) long. He was 27 years old.

He died in 1883 while attempting to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls at the age of 35.

Photograph of Matthew Webb, the man who made the first recorded swimming of the English Channel.

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