IronbridgeCaptain Matthew Webb
Who was Captain Matthew Webb and why is he famous?
The answer is that this 27 year old man from a small Shropshire village in England became the first person to swim the English Channel unaided. In August 1875 he swam the 26 miles (41.9 km) from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours. Prior to this time, such a feat was considered humanly impossible.
Matthew Webb was born on 19 January 1848 at Dawley in Shropshire, England. He was the eldest of 12 children born to Dr Webb and his wife, Sarah. The family moved from Dawley to nearby Coalbrookdale when Matthew was still quite young.
The new house was situated very close to the River Severn, which flowed quickly through the Ironbridge Gorge. Well aware of the dangers of the fast flowing river, Dr Webb gave all his children repeated warnings about swimming in the dangerous currents that had claimed many lives.
For young Matthew this warning was like a red rag to a bull. Instead of heeding his father’s advice he deliberately swam in the strong currensand became a very strong swimmer.
After Matthew left school he embarked on a Merchant Navy career but was still secretly obsessed with making a career out of swimming.
He joined the Cunard Line and in 1873 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 himself!
He trained for months until he felt sufficiently capable of attempting the marathon swim between Britain and France.
He failed at his first attempt, but on 24 August 1875 he tried again. Dressed in a Victorian one-piece bathing costume, his body smeared with porpoise oil for insulation, he dived into the sea from the Admiralty Pier at Dover.
Twenty-one hours and 45 minutes later he staggered out of the water at Calais. It is estimated that if you take into account the tidal currents, and allowing for his zig-zag course of adjustments to the direction, Webb actually swam a total of 39 miles (62.8 km)!
News of Matthew Webb's achievement made him an overnight hero in Britain. He returned to his home town in triumph, where large crowds of locals were gathered to welcome him amidst a carnival atmosphere. Very quickly news of Webb's achievement spread all over the world, raising the profile of swimming as a competitive sport.
Webb then gave up his Naval career to take up professional endurance swimming, where he could enter competitions or other feats of strength. He gained large sums of money for taking part in races in the United States.
He licensed his name for merchandising, wrote a book called The Art of Swimming and had world-wide fame. He participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
As so often happens with self-confident showmen, he attempted an extremely dangerous and ultimately fatal stunt.
Niagara Falls Disaster
On 20 July 1883 Webb accepted a challenge to swim across the river directly beneath Niagara Falls. For performing this feat he hoped to earn a $12,000 fortune. It is believed that he did not tell his wife of his intention to swim at Niagara and he is supposed to have said to the crowds "If I die, they will do something for my wife".
The Fatal Swim
On 24 July 1883 he jumped into the river from a small boat and began his swim. He was soon lost to sight in a mist of water. Within 10 minutes he had become caught in the current and was dragged under by a whirlpool. As time passed by, Webb failed to reappear, and despite searches it was clear that he had been lost. Four days passed before his mangled body was found some distance downstream.
Following Webb's death, much merchandise celebrating his exploits was created - commemorative mugs, plates and vases by the thousand where distributed across the world. One would hope that his widow and children benefited financially from this outpouring of sentiment.
The famous Captain Matthew Webb is buried at Niagara Falls in the Oakwood Cemetery but he has not been forgotten in his native England where his exploits are recorded on a monument in Holy Trinity Church, Coalbrookdale. His parents are buried in the churchyard.
In nearby Dawley there is a memorial in the High Street erected by his brother in 1909. On it is the short inscription: "Nothing great is easy ". Webb’s birthplace has been demolished but the house beside the River Severn where he disobeyed his father’s instructions and battled the treacherous river currents, is now called Dale House.
Should you ever visit Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire England and stand on the Iron Bridge gazing down at the River Severn’s swirling waters, remember the courteous, upright gentleman who honed his skills here as a champion swimmer - Captain Matthew Webb.
Google Map - Iron Bridge Shropshire

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