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Matthew Webb

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Matthew Webb
Born(1848-01-19)19 January 1848
Dawley, Shropshire, England
Died24 July 1883(1883-07-24) (aged 35)
Niagara River, Niagara Falls
Resting placeOakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York
Known forSwimming the English Channel

Captain Matthew Webb (19 January 1848 – 24 July 1883) was an English seaman, swimmer and stuntman. He is the first recorded person to swim the English Channel for sport without the use of artificial aids. In 1875, Webb swam from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours. This made him a celebrity, and he performed many stunts in public. He died trying to swim the Niagara Gorge below Niagara Falls, a feat declared impossible.

Early life and career[edit]

Webb was born in High Street, Dawley (now part of Telford), in Shropshire, one of fourteen children of a surgeon. Matthew Webb, and his wife Sarah Cartwright Webb, who moved with the family to Madeley High Street in 1849, and then by 1856 to Eastfield House, Coalbrookdale.[1] He acquired his ability to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale.[2] In 1860, at the age of twelve, he joined the training ship HMS Conway for two years,[citation needed] then entered the merchant navy and served an apprenticeship with Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool.[3]

Whilst serving as second mate on the Cunard Line ship Russia, travelling from New York to Liverpool, Webb attempted to rescue a man overboard by diving into the sea in the mid-Atlantic. The man was never found, but Webb's daring won him an award of £100 and the first Stanhope Medal, and made him a hero of the British press.[4]

In the summer of 1863, while at home, Webb rescued his 12-year-old brother Thomas from drowning in the Severn near Ironbridge.[2]

English Channel swimming record[edit]

Caricature of Webb by Ape, published in the London magazine Vanity Fair in 1875

In 1873, Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald when he read an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson to swim the English Channel. He became inspired to try, and left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames, the English Channel and Hollingworth Lake.[5] His early training was backed by Fred Beckwith who was the "Professor" at Lambeth Baths. Beckwith organised a spectacle by showing Webb swimming miles in the River Thames. Webb completed 'nearly six miles' (10 km), but the poor public interest meant that Beckwith lost money. As a result, Webb took another manager.[6]

On 12 August 1875, Webb 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 by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Backed by three escort boats and smeared in porpoise oil, he set off into the ebb tide at a steady breaststroke.[7] Despite stings from jellyfish[8] and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez which prevented him from reaching the shore for five hours,[9] finally, after approximately 21 hours and 40 minutes,[7] he landed near Calais—the first successful cross-channel swim. His zig-zag course across the Channel was nearly 40 miles (66 km) long.[7][10]

He was the first swimmer to complete a Channel swim without artificial aid; in June 1875, American Paul Boyton had swum across in 24 hours but was wearing an inflatable suit.[11]

Later life[edit]

After his record swim, Webb basked in national and international adulation, and followed a career as a professional swimmer. He wrote a book called The Art of Swimming[12] and licensed his name for merchandising such as commemorative pottery. A brand of matches was named after him. He participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.[8]

In May 1879, Webb won the swimming Championship of England at Lambeth Baths, by competing with champions from other cities. He covered a distance of 74 miles by swimming for fourteen hours a day over a period of six days. In September 1879, he competed for the Championship of the World against Paul Boyton. Webb won but was accused of cheating and so the prize money was withheld.[1]

On 27 April 1880, Webb and Madeline Kate Chaddock were married at St Andrew's Church, West Kensington, and they had two children, Matthew and Helen.[1]


Webb's final stunt was to be a dangerous swim in the Niagara Gorge through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls, a feat many observers considered suicidal. Although Webb failed in an attempt at raising interest in funding the event,[13] on 24 July 1883, he jumped into the river from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began his swim. Accounts of the time indicate that in all likelihood Webb successfully survived the first part of the swim, but died in the section of the river located near the entrance to the whirlpool.[14] Webb was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York.[15]


In 1909, Webb's elder brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley. On it reads the short inscription: "Nothing great is easy."[16] The memorial was taken away for repair after a lorry collided with it in February 2009. The landmark memorial was returned after full restoration and was hoisted back onto its plinth in High Street in October 2009.[17] Two roads in the town (Captain Webb Drive and Webb Crescent) and the Captain Webb Primary School in Dawley are named after the swimmer.[18]

Webb has a statue in Dover,[19] and a memorial plaque with his portrait was also unveiled in the parish church at Coalbrookdale.[20] Webb House of the Haberdashers' Adams Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire, is named after Webb.[21]

A book about Webb's life was written in 1986 entitled "Nothing Great Is Easy" by author David Elderwick. It has the tagline "The Story of Captain Matthew Webb, The First Man To Swim The English Channel".[22]

On August 25, 1981, American Charles Chapman became the first Black swimmer to cross the English channel successfully from Dover, England to Calais, France, a route similar to Webb's. The date was exactly 106 years from Webb's historic 1875 crossing.

Matthew Webb's Great Nephew, Edward Webb of Nottingham became the first man to solo paraglide across the English Channel on 12 September 1992. This was 117 years after his Great Uncle crossed the Channel. Edward was just 20 years old at the time but the feat helped to raise £2.5million pounds in fundraising for the Christian Rescue Services Young Children in Need charity.[23]

Cultural references[edit]

Captain Webb pub, Wellington Road, Wellington

His death inspired a poem by William McGonagall in 1883.[24] John Betjeman's poem "A Shropshire Lad" (1940) also commemorates the death of Webb, portraying his ghost swimming back along the canal to Dawley. It was set to music by Jim Parker and was recorded by folk singer John Kirkpatrick.[25]

Webb's picture on boxes of Bryant and May matches is said to have inspired the physical appearance of the Inspector Clouseau character portrayed originally in the Pink Panther films by Peter Sellers.[26]

An episode of Peabody's Improbable History (a segment of Rocky and Bullwinkle) misidentified him in dialogue and the episode's title as "Captain Clift". It was a sly reference to Peabody's voice being patterned after actor Clifton Webb. The character in the episode did, however, resemble Matthew Webb. The joke name also facilitated Peabody's closing pun about the "White Clifts of Dover".

A 2007 Channel 4 documentary named Swimming: A Brief History[27] suggests that Webb's swim was hugely inspirational. Both his Channel crossing and Niagara Falls downfall are discussed and Webb is described as revered for his 'sporting achievements'. The programme also features an artist's illustration of the 1875 channel swim and describes him consuming "beef tea, beer and brandy" during the event.

In 2009 Jim Howick portrayed Webb during a humorous retelling of his death in Episode 4, Series 1 of the CBBC show Horrible Histories.

Production began in 2014 for a full-length film adaptation about Webb's Channel attempt, initially under the working title The Greatest Englishman.[28] It was directed by Justin Hardy, written by Jemma Kennedy, and starring Warren Brown.[29][30] Released in 2015 under the title Captain Webb,[30] the movie was nominated for a British Film Award the following year,[31] but box office success was limited.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Peel, Malcolm. "Matthew Webb biography". Dawley Heritage Group. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b "Captain Matthew Webb". Meadow Pit Memorial Gardens. Archived from the original on 30 May 2013. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  3. ^ "Great Lives: Incredible feat made waves across the world: He was the first man to swim the English Channel but his life ended in tragedy". Shropshire Star. 22 November 2021. pp. 20, 29.Article on Matthew Webb by Toby Neal in a series on Midlands worthies.
  4. ^ Sprawson, Charles. "Webb, Matthew [Captain Webb] (1848–1883)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/28927. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ "Hollingworth Lake – a 200-year story of glory and tragedy". Manchester Evening News. 24 April 2005.
  6. ^ James Lambie (2010). The Story of Your Life: A History of the Sporting Life Newspaper (1859–1998). Troubador Publishing Ltd. pp. 173–. ISBN 978-1-84876-291-6.
  7. ^ a b c Seccombe, Thomas (1899). "Webb, Matthew" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 60. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  8. ^ a b Mason, Paul (10 October 2013). "Heroes of swimming: Captain Matthew Webb". The Swimming Blog. The Guardian.
  9. ^ "The daredevil channel swimmer". BBC Shropshire. 24 September 2014.
  10. ^ "How The Channel First Was Swum. Captain Webb, Son of a Physician, Received Training as Sailor in China Trade. Killed in Niagara River. Tried to Cross Rapids in 1883 and Was Lost". The New York Times. 23 August 1925.
  11. ^ Irving, Joseph (1879). "Captain Boyton". The Annals of Our Time from March 20, 1874, to the Occupation of Cyprus. London: Macmillan. p. 24.
  12. ^ The Art of Swimming at the HathiTrust Digital Library
  13. ^ "Capt. Webb Missing Yet. No Trace of His Body Found by the Anxious Searchers". The New York Times. 26 July 1883.
  14. ^ "Captain Webb's Manager". The New York Times. 29 July 1883. p. 10.
  15. ^ "Captain Webb". The Globe and Mail. 1 August 1883.
  16. ^ "Monument to Captain Matthew Webb (1848–1883)". National Recording Project. Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. Archived from the original on 23 August 2018. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  17. ^ "Webb memorial is restored to town". BBC News. 1 October 2009. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  18. ^ Haigh, Gerald (3 September 1999). "Names to live up to". Tes. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  19. ^ Sencicle, Lorraine (3 January 2015). "Captain Matthew Webb – the first Person to swim the Channel". The Dover Historian. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  20. ^ "Shropshire's Captain Matthew Webb Named As Unsung Hero". Shropshire Tourism. 17 November 2009. Archived from the original on 23 August 2018. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  21. ^ Daily News of Open Water Swimming (25 December 2013). "Landmarks, Monuments, Memorials of Open Water Swimmers".
  22. ^ "Nothing Great is Easy: The Story of Captain Matthew Web…".
  23. ^ "You searched for edward webb".
  24. ^ McGonagall, William (1883). "The Death of Captain Webb". McGonagall Online.
  25. ^ "A Shropshire Lad". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 22 August 2018.
  26. ^ Nixon, Rob. "The Big Idea: The Pink Panther". TCM. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
  27. ^ "Swimming: A Brief History". YouTube.
  28. ^ "Captain Webb (2015) – Release info". IMDb.
  29. ^ Potton, Ed. "How Warren Brown went from kick boxer to actor".
  30. ^ a b "Captain Webb (2015)". IMDb.
  31. ^ "Captain Webb". IMDb.
  32. ^ "Captain Webb (2015) – Financial Information".

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