“For long swimming and strong swimming”- The Birth of Marathon Swimming IV – The Interregnum

As mentioned in the first part, this irregular series resulted from the great documentation that former CS&PF President and multiple English Channel swimmer Nick Adams generously shared with me from his copy of the relevant Fry’s Outdoor Magazine. The series quickly grew into an overview of the early years of marathon swimming.

Part One and Part Two on Lord Byron featured a digression I hadn’t initially planned and to me at least, proved very interesting historically, as I tried to set the scene for Captain Webb.

Setting the scene led me further and in Part Three I covered the early days that led to marathon swimming in the 19th century including Matthew Webb’s first English Channel attempt. These reports seem to be exclusively in the UK. I am not saying that there were no other swims or swimmers elsewhere, but the newspapers and magazines were only interested in “British” swims, and this narrow provincialism or  bigotry can be more clearly seen in the story of Thomas Burgess. And this is an area to which I might return in the future.

In this part we’ll look in more detail at the other swimmers surrounding marathon swimming’s most famous swim, the frankly idealised standard which we present as a touchstone and to which we trace our cultural identity: Matthew Webb’s first successful English Channel solo swim and the subsequent period when various people attempted to replicate it.

This is not intended to be an article of cultural analysis, nor a comprehensive collection of contemporary sources nor a truly interrogative historical appreciation. It’s merely a presentation of some detail available of swims from this period, more extensive than which was briefly touched on in Kathy Watson’s The Crossing, the elision of which left many marathon and Channel swimmers wanting more. It also covers of some other early Channel attempts and swimmers. I wrote this without in the main referring to the accepted best source of the history of marathon swimming, Conrad Wennerberg’s Wind, Waves and Sunburn, in part because I just wanted to present the aspects I found interesting in the organic journey on which the initial articles led me.


The cover of Holbein's Swimming Book, 1903

The cover of Holbein’s Swimming book, 1903

Fry’s 1907 article opened with the provocative question: “Did Captain Webb swim the Channel?

Thirty two years had elapsed since Webb’s swim.

It’s worth considering that Webb had become possibly the most famous sports person in the world in the immediate period following his Channel swim. For about a decade prior to his swim debate had ensued of the possibility or impossibility of the feat. There had been media speculation whether Webb, Paul Boynton or others might be the person to succeed.

It is said the first recorded attempt was by JB Johnson in 1872 which only lasted sixty-three minutes, which compared to the shortest attempt I know of, only three minutes, in 2012, that’s not so bad. Holbein’s book (see below) says that he swam a prodigious seven miles in the time. This is unlikely. Trent Grimsey swam about six and a half kilometres in his first hour when he set the English Channel record in 2012, and Johnson didn’t have the advantages of goggles, cap …or  front crawl.

Boynton tried first April of 187, lasted 15 hours but wasn’t successful. He later succeeded in over twenty-three hours but did not claim to have swum the Channel, since he was wearing his patented inflatable rubber suit, a device he was trying to market as a life-saving device. To which also a sail was attached! Today his crossing still not be recognised as a Channel swim, and disregarded under MSF Rules as an Assisted swim.

Following his successful crossing Webb was lionized around the world. His name was ubiquitous. Many current swimmers are astonished and more often than not disbelieving that Michael Phelps is not the biggest swimming star the world has ever seen, and is at best only one of three (including Gertrude Ederle).

But for over three decades, no-on managed to emulate Webb’s feat, despite many attempts, in either direction. This lead to the provocative question: Had Webb actually swam the Channel?

Before we turn to the detailed presentation of  Webb’s story as featured in Fry’s Magazine, we need to look at the time in which this question arose.



Over the years since 1875 attempts by others included people such as Frederick Cavill, and most notably Montague Holbein and Scotsman Jabez (“Jappy”) Wolfe, none of whose swims were successful†.

Unlike today, how many and whom were the Aspirants and how far they swam could be found by investigation of the contemporary press, as every Channel swim attempt was a newsworthy item during the period of about seven decades, lasting until the 1960s. (Today, Aspirants are recorded in the Association’s logs, but not available to public investigation, short of a social media trawl). Fry’s Magazine differentiates the attempts in what I think we should call the Channel Interregnum (because I think it’s funny, that’s my sense of humour) which lasted from 1876 until the first years of the twentieth-century. During that time occurred ‘eighteen to twenty “genuine efforts” and “some half-dozen” by “men who have no real credentials for the effort but are only “out” for notoriety’. (Something else that is still part of Channel swimming, and the cause of the aforementioned three-minute attempt).

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says that in July 1876, aged 37, Englishman Fred Cavill swam over twenty miles from London Bridge to Greenhithe, the longest distance to that time on the Thames. Next month he swam from Southampton to Southsea Pier and from Dover to Ramsgate, before attempting to swim the English Channel. He was taken from the water three miles from his destination, but achieved considerable fame.  He tried again in 1877 and was pulled from the water either 50 or 220 yards from land. (I have found that reports of the early years often have contradictory distances for unsuccessful swims, further complicated by modern authors unquestioningly repeating one or the other). There was much debate, and the swim was recognized by London’s Serpentine Club though was/is not recognized by anyone else. (History has repeated itself to recently when only a couple of years ago one swimmer who was not successful sought (unsuccessfully) to have her swim, which had been aborted due to heavy fog close to shore, recognized as a success).

Note: I hope Nick won’t mind me disclosing that Serpentine is his club. I have become used to the many interconnections in the small global marathon swimming community, it’s nice to see how those connections also reach back in time.

Interestingly, Fred Cavill’s son Richmond “Dick” aka “Splash” was a champion swimmer also. As were Fred’s five other sons and three daughters.

Of those, Charles was the first to swim San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In 1901 Arthur also went to the United States where he also successfully swam the Golden Gate “but was frozen to death in 1914 trying to swim Seattle Harbour”.

Dick (or Arthur, or Syd) developed the front crawl. Syd later said: “I claim that I am the man who discovered the crawl and that my brother Arthur (“Tums”), […]was the first man to swim the stroke in Australia, and that my brother Dick was the man who perfected it. I introduced it into the United States.”

Regardless the Cavills developed John Trudgen’s eponymous stroke, and this led to its terminology as the “Australian front crawl”. It certainly seems youngest son Dick was the first to use crawl in competition, and first to swim under a hundred yards in a minute. Crawl is often now called freestyle by young swimmers who often don’t understand that freestyle actually means to swim any stroke choice, and that crawl is nearly always chosen as it is the fastest. The entire family was eventually inducted into The International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1970.

So swim goggle use and stroke development are part of modern swimming, and driven by open water, which in these days is seen more as the fringe of swimming, whereas during the Interregnum, swimming as a sport WAS open water swimming.


Holbein feeding out of a baby’s bottle(!) during his 43 hour Thames  swim

Holbein – That moustache! That collar!


Montague Holbein, a “famous cyclist” started marathon swimming in an attempt to recover from a leg injury. He swam (using a mixture of side and back stroke) forty-three miles in the Thames in twelve and a half hours in 1899. Which he immediately followed by wanting to get back in the water to swim another seven to “complete his fifty“, only to be stopped by his trainer. A notable aspect of this is it may the first marathon swim on which  a camera was used.

One photo shows him covered neck to toe in black grease and wearing his cap.

This success inspired him that became what some sources say were six Channel attempts, and what he himself says were eight (Fry’s 1903),  starting in 1901 and on his last came within a mile of France, something that sounds to outsiders like the worst possible outcome, (until a Channel Swimmer tells you that this is where most unsuccessful attempts founder, and the last mile is the most difficult).

Holbein was the first swimmer (and recall he was in the first handful of Aspirants) to look at tides and their effects. He also attempted both directions. In his first twelve-hour attempt he used Thomas Burgess as a pace-maker for the swim. There is significant coverage of Holbein’s swim in magazines such as Tatler and The Sketch, and Sporting Life.

He wrote a book on swimming in 1903 which since it’s out of copyright scans can be found online with a bit of searching. In it is included an ad for Bovril, part of the long association, now sadly ended, between Channel swimmers and that so-British beef tea. It also covered the pioneering attempts , some of the swims I’ve covered such as Agnes Beckwith, great detail of his own attempts and as such is an invaluable summary of the early days of Channel swimming, from one was part of it.


Holbein's maps of 5 of his attempts, mapping tidal effects

Holbein’s maps of 5 of his attempts, mapping tidal effects

I’ve been reconsidering Jabez Wolfe, from the man about whom I knew little except that he attempted the Channel so many times. Nicknamed the “unluckiest Channel swimmer in history“, he remains a hero to Channel Soloists, purely for his astonishing resilience and determination in the face of defeat, though like the others here is unknown outside Channel swimming. He made an astonishing number of attempts. Anywhere from nineteen to forty-four, between 1906 and 1921, in both directions. Four times he got within a mile and one time he was merely a couple of hundred metres from success.

I found a Google Snippet of a book called The Jew In Sports, which makes the assertion that Wolfe claimed to have actually swum the Channel but was unable to claim such because of insufficient observers at his landing spot. The title of the book and its date in the mid-thirties may give indication of its politics or value though  and is almost certainly an anti-Semitic fabrication.

What is a fact is that Jabez Wolfe was for decades after one of the pre-eminent trainers for Channel swimmers. It’s also reported he was responsible for the failure of  Gertrude Ederle’s first attempt after mistakenly pulling her from the water when she was resting. He disregarded Thomas “Bill” Burgess’ (below) interest in understanding tides. Though he is still greatly admired for his tenacity and courage in Channel swimming, I find myself agreeing with what Stout asserts that Burgess felt: That Wolfe’s failure to maximise his chances by disregarding my own most natural and deep inclination, that is, to understand, was a profound and fundamental mistake. Are twenty-two attempts something to be held in such admiration when many of them had no chance of success due to tides or weather? Is pig-headed stubbornness in the darkness itself something worth emulating? As a Channel Swimmer I answer: Of course it is. But it needs to be in the context of informed decision-making.

I wonder if, as a Channel coach, Wolfe passed this onto this students, and this might have hindered further early Aspirants and even the development of Channel Swimming itself? Speculation of course.

Of course, maybe this comparison falls flat. Born in England but living in France, Thomas Burgess made sixteen attempts before success, finally becoming in 1911, thirty six years after Webb, the second person to swim the Channel.

Holbein certainly introduced attempts to understand wind, weather and tides and to have knowledgeable pilots who understood the waters  into Channel swimming. It is written that when he swam into Calais the assembled crowds sang the Marsellaise and that this and his “apparent” Frenchness hindered Burgess’ fame in Britain and hence elsewhere.

Unlike Webb’s breaststroke, Burgess swam sidestroke, the front crawl you will recall had not yet evolved out of the Trudgen stroke. Burgess never swam La Manche again, though he bought and lived out his life in a house on Cap Gris Nez.
Glenn Stout wrote that Thomas Burgess was also the first to use a bathing cap and wax in his ears, more early developments from open water, these driven by the effects of cold. The coverage of Burgess is in marked contrast to Holbien, possibly reflecting his betrayal of Britian evidenced by his living (shudder) abroad.

All us Channel Swimmers would like to meet Webb. To talk of the long hours, the fear before starting the leap, of faith before starting, the anticlimax. But I would also love to meet Burgess. On the evidence Webb and Ederle were the greatest, the untouchables, whose like is rarely repeated. Burgess speaks to me in a different way, that he is more like me or that I would aspire to be more like him. He seems the quintessential lone swimmer. If it is not too ludicrous and does not do his memory any dishonour, just on his record I see Burgess as the Channel pioneer I can most feel connection with.


Holbein photo covered in Grease 580px height

Holbein covered in grease wearing a cap

Other unsuccessful swimmers before the Fry’s article was published  include F. Holmes four unsuccessful England to France attempts between 1898 and 1902, Annette Kellerman, 1905, J. Weidman, 1905, E.Heaton, who made six attempts in total, of which one was prior to 1907. Also  Horace Mew’s two attempts in 1905 and 1906. There was also Davis Dalton, to whom I plan to return in this series.

These surely led in part to 1907 and Fry’s Outdoor Magazine which publicised the question over the validity of Webb’s swim, but also published its investigation into Webb’s swim and which now stands, though over thirty years had passed in the interim, as a comprehensive independent account of Webb’s swim. So in what seems a diversionary fashion, I’ve ended up talking about what happened between Webb and Burgess, to set the scene for the later analysis of Webb’s swim, which was where I’d originally planned to go when I started out on this, before I realised I would need to set the broader historical context.

Ad for Bovril from Holbein's swimming book

Ad for Bovril from Holbein’s swimming book. Webb seems to have been forgotten


5 thoughts on ““For long swimming and strong swimming”- The Birth of Marathon Swimming IV – The Interregnum

  1. Impressive picture of Holbein, the black grease looks very like a modern day wetsuit. Now that FINA has accepted wetsuits for colder open water swims, do you think that Channel Swims will change?


    • Hi Polly, , yes my instant reaction was that he was wearing a wetsuit.

      FINA and channel swimming have always been fairly distant relatives. Wetsuit channel crossings also have been allowed for about 20 years, it’s just that wetsuit swimmers are not counted as Channel Swimmers, there are no observers or rules governing their crossings and they are not recorded and FINA meanwhile have no say over individual associations.


      • I appreciate that FINA and the Channel Swimming associations are independent, but in the past FINA allowed a reasonable amount of “greasing up”. I have no intention of ever swimming so far, but “greasing up” raises some questions: How effective is it, what temperatures can you swim in and will it last to the other side of the Channel?


        • Greasing is only for one reason: elimination of chaffing. The old Channel swimmers thought it retained heat, but they gave up on that by the 50s. Effectiveness is based on your choice of grease. I use petroleum for up to two hours, channel grease for anything over that. Channel grease easily lasts 24 hours, though I’ve found in hot weather you can lose some of it before the swim starts. In warmer weather or water, you might want to use a more lanolin heavy mix (90/10), but then there is also a belief that lanolin shouldn’t be used in shark infested water, but how do you provide evidence for that? So it’s likely just caution.

          Liked by 1 person

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