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24 September 2014

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The daredevil channel swimmer
Captain Mattew Webb (picture courtesy Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust
Captain Webb became a celebrity overnight

Victorian Britain was full of pioneers like Brunel, daredevils like Houdini and even madmen.

But in 1875 it was a Shropshire lad who attracted the attention of the British Empire - for being the first man to swim the English Channel

audio Giants of the Gorge: Jon King looks at the life of the daredevil Captain Webb(28k)
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Webb was the first person to receive the Stanhope Gold Medal for his attempt to save the life of a fellow seaman in the Atlantic.

The memorial to him at Coalbrookdale Church is placed in the porch, because it was widely believed that the Niagra swim was so dangerous that it was an act of suicide. As suicide is regarded as a sin by the church, the memorial had to be placed outside the main part of the church.

At 10.41am on Wednesday 25th August 1875, Captain Matthew Webb picked himself out of the choppy waters of the English Channel and made his way onto dry land - French soil.

Almost 22 hours earlier he had entered the channel at Dover and begun swimming.

As the first man to swim the channel, Webb became an instant celebrity and public hero overnight. Everywhere he went, crowds turned out to welcome him.

Webb was born in the mining village of Dawley on 19th January 1848, one of eight children of a local doctor.

From an early age he wanted to go to sea - a common ambition for many young boys of the day - but Webb was different. To start with he was an incredibly strong swimmer - he'd learned to swim in the strong currents of the Severn - but also he had acquired a reputation for being fearless.

At the age of 12 Webb left home to train as a merchant seaman, learning his trade for two years before going to sea.

It wasn't long before his swimming skills - at a time when most sailors couldn't swim - began to attract attention.

Detail from the Captain Webb memorial in Dawley
Detail from the Captain Webb memorial in Dawley

In mid-Atlantic he once jumped overboard to save a colleague who had fallen into the water - a highly dangerous feat. He didn't find the missing man, but was awarded £100 - then a princely sum - for risking his life.

In 1873 Webb read an account of a failed attempt to swim the channel by J.B. Johnson, a racing swimmer and it changed his life.

He quit his job as captain of the steamship Emerald and lodged in London, where he began to train. To start with he built up his stamina at Lambeth Baths, but as soon as he could he was practising in the cold waters of the Thames and the English Channel.

Finally, in August 1875, it was time for Webb to take the plunge - but disaster struck.

Seven hours into his first attempt a violent storm blew up and he had to abandon the attempt.

Twelve days later he was ready to try again. Backed by a flotilla of three boats, he set out again, swimming breat stroke into the ebb tide, which carried him out to sea.

Eight hours into the swim, Webb was stung by a jellyfish, but a does of brandy helped him continue. But dawn saw him fighting the tide as he attempted to reach Cap Gris Nez on the French side of the channel.

For five hours he swam along the coast, waiting for the tide to abate and becoming increasing desperate. Eventually the tide eased and an exhausted Webb was able to make landfall at Calais. He'd swum 39 miles.

Webb never returned to a life at sea, and made a good living as an exhibition swimmer, at the same time attempting the odd race against other daredevil swimmers - and doing some circus-style stunts that usually involved him staying in water for a very long time.

He married Madelaine Kate Chaddock in 1880, but it wasn't long before he was pushing the boundaries again.

His next stunt was to be a truly dangerous swim across the rapids at Niagra Falls - a feat many considered suicidal.

At 4.25pm on 24th July 1883, he jumped into the river from a small boat and began his swim. Within 10 minutes he had become caught in the current and was dragged under by a whirlpool.

His body was found four days later and buried at Oakwood Cemetery, Niagra Falls.

In 1909, Webb's older brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley. On it reads the short inscription: "Nothing great is easy".

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