Tag Archives: Matthew Webb

July 24th, 1883

Niagara maelstrom
Photo used with permission by reddit user zxo

This is a maelstrom.

Indeed the very definition of such, as it’s the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It’s where Captain Matthew Webb tragically died on this day, July 24th, 1883. It was taken by a photographer zxo  and it grabbed my attention immediately I saw it and they gave me permission to use it here.

After his historic, (in a real sense), first ever successful solo of the English Channel on August 24th, 1875, Captain Webb was unable to parlay his global fame into anything more substantial, despite investments of his prize and an overseas lecture tour.

He’d become known as a swimmer, so he swam more.

Exhibition races in Boston and Manhattan, a “world championship race” against his arch-rival to be first across the Channel, Irish-American US Champion Paul Boynton. Boynton had worn and championed the use of an inflatable rubber suit, and had he been first across, marathon swimming would likely be quite different today. (Boynton did an exhibition swim in Dublin down the Liffey river wearing the suit which was watched by 30,000 people). Webb won the championship race also, but a stunt at the Boston Horticultural Show where he floated for 128 hour in a tank didn’t suffice to provide for his young wife and two young children.

His family knew nothing about the Niagara swim. In desperation Webb took up the challenge on a promise of $12,000, a considerable sum in those days. Thousands of spectators were brought by train to watch.

Wearing the same swimming costume as that in which he had swum the Channel, he stepped into the huge current. He started strongly but very quickly the current took him. He threw his arms in the air and was pulled under, where he hit his head on the rocks and died, his body being recovered four days later. Prior to the swim he had expressed his hope that “If I die they will do something for my wife“.

A friend of his, Robert Watson, the journalist who had accompanied him in the boat on his Channel swim, also traveled with him to Niagara. Watson reported: “As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame“.

Any English Channel swimmer cannot but think of Captain Webb, both his feats and his tragedy. We celebrate most commonly the date of his Channel crossing.

But he was a man, more than just a swimmer. It is often said by Channel swimmers that the English Channel changes us. It is rarely mentioned that those changes are not always positive. We cannot but think that out of such achievement came such sadness. And yet also motivation for so many. But we can at least say he achieved his second goal of imperishable fame.

It is not known whether anyone did anything for his wife or if his fame or achievement sustained them in any way. Captain Webb has no living descendants.

Nothing_Great_Is_Easy

First of the Global Tribe of marathon swimmers

There is a shared heritage of our international tribe and this is the man who started it all in 1875. In Dover this statue stands on the prom in front of the ugly flats, facing the sea, about 200 metes beyond Swimmer’s Beach towards the ferry port. Marathon swimming is a heritage and history of triumph and disaster, storms and sun, dark nights and dull days, bright sunshine and howling winds, waiting and hoping and success and even death, hopes and dreams, cold and tired, pilots, crew, friends, family and swimmers.

Captain Matthew Webb -

It was Captain Webb who dreamed of the Channel AND achieved it … who (possibly or even apocryphally) gave us, English Channel swimmers at least, our motto: Nothing Great Is Easy.

 (not on the Dover memorial)

But it is everyone who tries, and fails or succeeds, who creates our history. We are, like most other tribes whose members are members by choice, a niche group. We exist, in our way, on the fringes, and most people don’t know we’re here. But Captain Webb will always be Primus of us all. I won’t claim Inter Pares for most of us, though when you can stand and talk face to face with greats like Kevin Murphy, Nick Adams, Freda Streeter etc and your friends from around the world, you can enjoy the mutual respect and feeling of belonging that all tribes of choice bring. Thanks Captain.

* I reviewed the biography of Captain Webb a long time ago.

First woman to ever swim an English Channel Double before doing a Solo, Lisa Cummins. With the Captain.

Review: The Crossing by Kathy Watson

The story of Capt. Matthew Webb is the starting point for modern Open Water swimming.

While there are other famous open water swims from before this time, Byron & Hellespont being the most famous, the dream of swimming the English channel was alive and well in the late 19th century, with other attempts before Webb’s first successful swim.

Watson’s book is a brief affair and an easy read, focusing on Webb’s biography as well as the successful Channel Swim itself, following an unsuccessful initial attempt.

Webb’s life was not a happy event. He was successful in his Merchant Navy career and a decorated hero for a mid-Atlantic life-saving attempt. After the Channel swim made him famous though he spent the remainder of his life chasing further fame, to lesser and greater degrees of success, but never to the same level as his Channel swim had achieved.
He drowned attempting to swim the rapids below Niagara Falls. It’s a depressing enough life but the book is enlivened by such items as the story of Paul Boyton , the “Fearless Frogman”, & Webb’s main rival, (and funnily enough to us), not a swimmer and wearing a an inflated rubber suit, who papers reported appeared before 100,000 people in Ireland.

This isn’t the definitive book on Channel swimming, which hasn’t yet been written, but it of interest to swimmers nonetheless. My main problem with it was the workman prose, which never matched the flow of its subject.