Shropshire History

Matthew Webb


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1848 – Born at Dawley, the son of a Coalbrookdale doctor.


1860 - Webb learned to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale and aged 12 he joined the merchant navy. He served a three-year apprenticeship with Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool and, while serving as second mate on the Cunard ship “Russia” travelling from New York to Liverpool, he 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. He was awarded the Stanhope Medal and became a hero of the British press.


1863 - In the summer, while at home, he rescued his 12 year old brother Thomas from drowning in the River Severn near Ironbridge.


1873 - Webb was serving as captain of the steamship “Emerald” when he read an account of a failed attempt to swim the English Channel. He was inspired to try himself and left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the River Thames, the English Channel and Hollingworth Lake.


1875 – On 12th August he made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim. On 24th 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. Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez, which prevented him reaching the shore for 5 hours, after 21 hours and 45 minutes he landed near Calais. This was the first successful cross-channel swim. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles long.


After his record swim, Captain Webb became a professional swimmer. He licensed his name for merchandising pottery and a brand of matches, then wrote a book called “The Art of Swimming”. He participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.




1880 – In April, he married Madeline Chaddock, and they had two children.


1883 – In July, he attempted to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls. He jumped into the river from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began his swim. He survived the first part of the swim but drowned in the section of the river located near the entrance to the whirlpool. Webb was buried in Oakwood Cemetery at Niagara Falls.