Mercedes Gleitze

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Mercedes Gleitze
Mercedes Gleitze NZ crop portrait.jpg
Mercedes Gleitze in 1930.
Born18 November 1900
Died9 February 1981(1981-02-09) (aged 80)
OccupationProfessional swimmer
Known forSwimming records and founding a charity[1]
Spouse(s)Patrick Joseph Carey

Mercedes Gleitze or Mercedes Carey (18 November 1900 – 9 February 1981) was a British professional swimmer. She was the first person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar and the first British woman to swim the English channel. The name of Mercedes Gleitze was used to market Rolex's new waterproof case, the "Oyster". She established endurance records for swimming including a record of 46 hours in 1932. She was able to raise funds to found the Mercedes Gleitze Homes in Leicester via sponsorship. The Mercedes Gleitze charity is now linked to the Family Action charity[2].

Early Life[edit]

Mercedes Gleitze was born to Heinrich and Anna (born Kurr) Gleitze in 1900 in the English south-coastal town of Brighton. She and her two elder sisters came from German heritage and Mercedes spent time with her grandparents in Herzogenaurach in Bavaria and two years studying at the Maria Stern Convent School in Nördlingen. Her father was a German immigrant from the county of Göttingen. He was a baker and her mother taught languages.

Swimming Achievements[edit]

With her bilingual background and education Gleitze become a secretary and stenographer in central London exploiting her talent for languages. In her spare time she started swimming in the River Thames. Her first significant record was for 10 hr 45 min she spent swimming in the Thames. This was the longest time for a woman in 1923. She attracted attention when, at the eighth attempt, she became the first English woman to swim the English Channel, on 7 October 1927.[3] The record was in doubt when in the following days another woman claimed to have swum the channel faster.[4] Her version of events proved to be a fabrication but the effect of this hoax undermined Gleitze's claim.[4]

Under pressure from the media she agreed to undertake a "vindication swim" even though the water was much colder than when Channel swimming is normally attempted.[4] Gleitze failed to complete the swim but her endurance of the cold convinced all that the original record should stand.[4] Gleitze made not only her name but also that of Rolex's Oyster watch. The watch withstood her second swim and this was used to launch an advertising campaign in Britain. Rolex still uses Gleitze's name in their publicity.[4]

Gleitze was sponsored for these record attempts and in 1928 she was able to open the first Mercedes Gleitze Home in 1933. This was a large house in Leicester that was converted into flats for homeless families. She was supported in her work by the Rotary Club which was undertaking a scheme to move unemployed people from the north of England to Leicester where they could find work. Gleitze continued to break records and she became the first person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa.

Gleitze travelled to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to establish new records for swimming. Besides swimming the 100 miles around the Isle of Man and becoming the first person to swim to Robben Island and back to Cape Town she also staged feats of endurance swimming.[3]

When she first took the endurance swimming record it stood at 26 hours. Over several years she extended this record in public swimming baths where crowds would attend and encourage her by singing together.

Gleitze married engineer Patrick Carey in Dover in 1930 with the American swimming twins Bernice and Phyllis Zittenfeld as bridesmaids. The ceremony was covered by British newsreels where Gleitze announced that she was off to swim the Hellespont instead of going on honeymoon.[5] Gleitze continued to extend her endurance record to 45 hours the following year. In 1932 she retired after again extending the record finally to 46 hours.[3]

Gleitze had three children and died aged 80 on 9 February 1981 in a hospital in London.


Gleitze gathered a large number of companies who were keen to be associated with her achievements. Consumers were asked to toast her with Paddy Whiskey when they were not drinking Lipton's Tea which had reputedly helped her "beat the channel". She appeared at a corset demonstration for Kellett's and at the showing of the, now lost, 1927 silent film Swim Girl, Swim which starred Bebe Daniels and a fellow swimmer Gertrude Ederle. There was unproductive rumours that Gleitze might star in a film. Gleitze also recommended Be-ze-be honey and bathing caps as well as her enduring role as a brand ambassador for Rolex watches.[5]


Gleitze became a celebrity and she was regularly the subject of stories. The newspaper that most adopted a tabloid approach to her was the Daily Mirror that hinted that Gleitze was using her charity's funds inappropriately. The paper challenged the charity to allow its accounts to be audited and offered to pay for the cost. The papers also reported on believed or invented stories of rivalry between Gleitze and other swimmers. Millie Hudson who went with her to Gibraltar was said to be a rival and Gleitze was said to have annoyed Lottie Shoemmell who was an American swimmer by refusing to race her across the Channel.[5]


Besides her three children and many swimming records Gleitze founded several homes that were used by homeless British people during the 1930s. In 1939 they were used for homeless Czech people. The buildings were destroyed in Second World War bombing in 1940,[3] however an organisation continues to administer her charity and it continues Gleitze's desire to alleviate the effects of homelessness.[1]

Rolex still use Gleitze's achievement (2010) in their publicity.[4] In 2010 the Rolex company was running adverts featuring swimming the channel, their watch, and the figure of a woman in a swimming costume. The advert does not mention Gleitze, nor does it mention that she did not complete a Channel swim whilst wearing the watch. The advert shows the swimmer wearing the watch on her wrist although when Gleitze attempted to carry the watch across the Channel she had it tied around her neck.[6]


  1. ^ a b Mercedes Gleitze Relief In Need Charity, Charity number 252248, Retrieved 24 September 2015
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d Doloranda Hannah Pember, 'Gleitze, Mercedes (1900–1981)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 accessed 23 Sept 2015
  4. ^ a b c d e f The Vindication Swim: Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge and become world-renowned, John E Brozak, International Wristwatch Magazine, December 2003, Retrieved 24 September 2015
  5. ^ a b c Chambers, Ciara (2013). "An Advertiser's Dream: The Construction of the "Consumptionist" Cinematic Persona of Mercedes Gleitze". Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media. 6 (Winter). ISSN 2009-4078.
  6. ^ : "1927: The Swimming of the English Channel". House & Garden (U.K.). Oct. 2010. Source:, cited by Chambers

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