Captain Matthew Webb

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Illustration of Captain Matthew Webb after landing on Calais, France in August 1875 in the the first historic solo swim crossing of the English Channel from England to France
Captain Matthew Webb wearing a wool suit, popular in his era of the 1870s
Modern-day British actor Warren Brown as Captain Matthew Webb in the film, The Greatest Englishman by Marathon Films

Captain Matthew Webb (19 January 1848 – 24 July 1884) was the first person to successfully swim across the English Channel from England to France without the use of artificial aids. On 25 August 1875 he swam breaststroke from Dover to Calais in less than 21 hours 45 minutes to inspire and educate the world about marathon swimming. His feat was not replicated for another 36 years.

Captain Webb is the title of a theatrical release by director Justin Hardy, a film about Webb's crossing of the English Channel.

Early Life and Career

Webb was born at Dawley in Shropshire, one of twelve children of a Coalbrookdale doctor. He joined the merchant navy and served a three-year apprenticeship with Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool.

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

Open Water Swimming Highlights

  • On July 1875, he swam 42.2 km down the Thames River from Blackwall to Gravesend in 4 hours 54 minutes.
  • On 20 July 1875, he swam 41.4 km along the Dover Coast from Dover to Ramsgate in 8 hours 45 minutes.
  • On 25 August 1875, he completed a 33.5 km crossing of the English Channel from England to France on his second attempt finishing in 21 hours 45 minutes swimming breaststroke.

English Channel Swim

In 1874 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 himself, and left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames and the English Channel.

On 12 August 1875 he made his first English Channel attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim.

On 24 August 1875 he began a second swim by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Backed by three escort boats and covered in porpoise oil, he set off into the ebb tide at a steady breaststroke. Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez which prevented him reaching the shore for five hours, he finally finished in 21 hours 45 minutes. He landed near Calais and walked upon the shore under his own power and without touching any boats or other humans, the first successful cross-channel swim in history.

Post English Channel Career

After his English Channel swim that garnered worldwide attention, Webb established himself as a professional swimmer. He licensed his name for merchandising for items as commemorative pottery. He also wrote a book called The Art of Swimming and participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.

In order to promote the art of swimming as a life-saving skill and to demonstrate that "the man most likely to be rescued in case of shipwreck will not be the one that can swim the fastest but the one that keeps himself afloat the longest time", he settled upon another challenge: a 46-hour swim.

The Lambeth Baths in London, an indoor swimming venue, was the site of the Trials of Endurance in 1869. The winner was the person who covered the most distance in six days (144 hours) of swimming. Of the five contestants, only Captain Webb persisted in using breaststroke rather than sidestroke that was popular at the time. Slow and steady like his English Channel crossing, he easily won the Champion of England title with 119 km (64 miles).


His final stunt was to be a dangerous swim 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, on 24 July 1884 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.

Webb was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York.


In 1909, Webb's elder brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley, Shropshire, England. On it reads the short inscription: "Nothing Great Is Easy." 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 Dawley High Street in October 2009.

There is also a road (Webb Crescent) and the Captain Webb School, both located in Dawley, that are named after Captain Webb.

Webb was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1964 as an Honour Swimmer and in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965.

List of Kings of the Channel®

King of the Channel® - Letona Trophy Number of Crossings Years Held Title
Captain Matthew Webb 1 1865-1944
Edward Temme 2 1944-1951
William Barnie 4 1951-1960
Brojen Das 4-6 1960-1964
Melvyn Sharp 6 1964-1965
Des Renford 8-16 1965-1969
Michael Read 16-18 1969-1980
Des Renford 19 1980
Michael Read 20-41 1980-2000
Kevin Murphy 42 2000-2004
Michael Read 44 2004-2006
Kevin Murphy 44 2006-

Greatest Watermen in Open Water Swimming History

Webb was named as one of the Greatest Watermen in Open Water Swimming History by the World Open Water Swimming Association in 2015:

1. Zacharias Alexandrakis (Macedonia): Marathon swimming enthusiast, open water swimming promoter, lifeguard, swimming coach and lifesaving leader.
2. Antonio Argüelles Díaz-González (Mexico): Triathlete, ultra-endurance athlete, channel swimmer and author
4. Stathis Avramidis, Ph.D. (Greece): Researcher, swimmer, author, speaker, and lecturer
4. Peter Bales (South Africa): Channel swimmer, marathon swimmer, governing body administrator and escort pilot
5. Vito Bialla (U.S.A.): Extreme relay swimmer, professional sailor, and escort pilot of the Farallon Islands, California
6. Paul Blackbeard (South Africa): World-class pool swimmer, ocean swimmer, and life saver
6. Lord Byron (Great Britain): Poet, author and pioneering sea swimmer
8. Dick Campion (Australia): Olympian, coach, trainer, author, promoter, and professional marathon swimmer
9. Daniel Eulogio Carpio Massioti (Peru): Four-time Olympian, Channel swimmer, professional racer, and solo swimmer
10. Bruckner Chase (U.S.A.): marathon swimmer, ocean advocate, ambassador to the disabled, filmmaker, paddler and surf lifesaver
11. Buster Crabbe (U.S.A.): Olympic champion, ice swimmer, promoter, and movie star of 4 pulp fiction heroes
12. Guy Delage (France): Ocean swimmer, extreme adventurer, diver, submariner, and sailor
14. Marcos Díaz (Dominican Republic): Marathon racer, extreme swimmer, surfer, governing body administrator, and event director
14. Shannon Eckstein (Australia): Ironman lifesaver, paddler, kayaker, surf skier and ocean swimmer
15. Ian Emberson (Kauai, U.S.A.): Channel swimmer, original Ironman triathlete, ocean swimmer, event director, and triathlete
16. George Freeth (Hawai, U.S.A.): Ocean swimmer, surfer, paddler, and lifesaver organizer
16. Alfréd Hajós (Hungary): Olympic champion, professional racer, and architect
18. Trevor Hendy (Australia): Ironman lifesaver, paddler, kayaker, surf skier and ocean swimmer
19. Colin Hill (Great Britain): Ice swimmer, Channel swimmer, television commentator, and event director
20. Craig Hummer (U.S.A.): Competitive swimmer, kayaker, paddler, Ironman lifesaver, and Olympic television commentator
21. Ky Hurst (Australia): Ocean swimmer, two-time Olympian, body surfer extraordinaire, and champion life saver
22. Zhang Jian (China): Marathon swimmer, Channel swimmer, ice swimmer and university sports director
24. Captain Tim Johnson (U.S.A.): Marathon swimmer, author, professor, shark cage designer, analyst, and historian
24. Duke Kahanamoku (Hawaii): Ocean swimmer, Olympic champion, surfing legend and ambassador of aloha
25. Grant Kenny (Australia): Ironman lifesaver, paddler, kayaker, surf skier and ocean swimmer
26. Guy Leech (Australia): Ironman lifesaver, paddler, kayaker, surf skier and ocean swimmer
26. Luiz Eduardo Carneiro da Silva de Souza Lima (Brazil): Two-time Olympian, stand-up paddler, ocean swimming coach, pioneering ocean swimmer and promoter
28. Pádraig Mallon (Ireland): Marathon swimmer, Channel swimmer, ice swimmer, event organizer, promoter and triathlete
29. Vojislav Mijić (Serbia): Marathon swimmer, professional racer, solo pioneer and event organizer
40. Masayuki Moriya (Japan): Coach, channel swimmer, event organizer, clinician, and governing body administrator
41. Keo Nakama (Hawaii/U.S.A.): World champion, world record holder, pioneering ocean swimmer, event organizer and coach
42. Aaron Peirsol (U.S.A.): 6-time Olympic medalist, surfer, lifeguard, coach, and body surfer extraordinaire
44. Lewis Pugh (Great Britain): Channel swimmer, marathon swimmer, ocean advocate, ambassador, author, and speaker
44. Kevin Richards (South Africa): Competitive swimmer, triathlete, surf lifesaver, and coach
45. Philip Rush (New Zealand): Channel swimmer, marathon swimmer, professional racer, escort pilot, channel administrator, and fire fighter
46. Wayne Riddin (South Africa): Competitive swimmer, race director, aquapreneur, coach and promoter
46. Veljko Rogošić (Croatia): Two-time Olympic swimmer, professional racer, solo pioneer, swimming ambassador and marathon swimmer
48. Kenny Rust (Hawaii, U.S.A.): Ocean swimmer, lifeguard, aquapreneur, and event safety official
49. Ori Sela (Israel): Sea swimmer, coach, therapist, pioneer relay swimmer and aquapreneur
40. Borut Strel (Slovenia): Coach, swimmer, clinician, planner and logistic expert
41. Martin Strel (Slovenia): Channel swimmer, marathon swimmer, extreme adventurer, film protagonist, and camp clinician
42. Georgios-Ioannis Tsianos, M.D., Ph.D. (Greece): Research scientist, physician, expedition medic and Channel swimmer
44. Christof Wandratsch (Germany): Channel swimmer, professional racer, solo pioneer, ice swimming record holder and event promoter
44. Captain Matthew Webb (Great Britain): Channel swimmer, extreme adventurer, and professional racer
45. Johnny Weissmuller (U.S.A.): 4-time Olympic champion and movie star with a household name
46. Alick Wickham (Solomon Islands): Ocean swimmer, high diver, body surfing promoter, surfboard shaper, and freestyle ambassador
46. Patrick Winkler (Brazil): Competitive swimmer, ocean swimmer, stand-up paddler, race promoter and publisher of The Swim Channel Magazine
48. Jabez Wolffe (Great Britain): Channel aspirant and coach in the early generations of channel swimming
49. Doug Woodring (Hong Kong/U.S.A.): Marine environment ambassador, ecology advocate, aquapreneur, ocean event director, paddler, diver, and ocean swimmer
50. David Yudovin (U.S.A.): Channel swimmer, marathon swimmer, aquapreneur, benefactor and mariner

Captain Webb

Captain Webb is a film by Justin Hardy about Webb's attempts across the English Channel in 1865. The film was released in August 2015.

External links


1. Captain Webb Missing Yet". New York Times, pg. 1. 26 July 1884.
2. Captain Webb's Manager". New York Times, pg. 10. 29 July 1884.
4. Captain Webb". The Globe and Mail (Toronto), pg. 2. 1 August 1884.
4. A Shropshire Lad. website. Retrieval Date: 16 February 2008.