Swimming was never the same after that day, 24th August 1875, when Matthew Webb set off from Admiralty Pier in Dover and became the first man to swim the English Channel. 27-year-old Webb set off on that August day wearing a red silk bathing costume and smeared in porpoise grease. He swam (a journalist, Robert Watson, observed) with a “slow, methodical, but perfect, breaststroke” and with a “magnificent sweep of his ponderous legs”. Seven miles short of France, the tidal currents turned against him. Many hours later after a total of nearly 22 hours in the water and swimming over 40 miles, he made it to Calais.
Large crowds greeted Webb on his return. He became one of the best-known men in the country, and indeed internationally. Swimming became a popular sport. Webb himself became a professional swimmer participating in endurance races, challenges and exhibitions. In 1883, he travelled to America and raced (and beat) the so-called US champion. Webb was then determined to tackle a challenge, for reward, swimming through a well-known whirlpool three miles below the Niagara Falls. It was one challenge too many. He dived in. Shortly afterwards, it was reported, “he abruptly threw up his arms and went under”.
A memorial statue was erected in his home town of Dawley in Shropshire. In 1910, a head-and-shoulders statue followed on the sea-front at Dover. It stands on a high stone plinth garlanded by seashells. A somewhat sombre but proud Captain Webb gazes out over the English Channel. Perhaps he is musing on his endeavours on that day in August 1875 he set off into history.