Brief history of Channel swimming

Captain Webb was the first man to swim across the Channel, back in 1875.

Until then this was thought impossible and extremely dangerous.

This amazing feat was achieved by the 27 year old son of a Shropshire doctor.

He achieved it after several attempts aided by top-ups of brandy, beef tea and

hot coffee, his body greased with porpoise oil. Inclement weather and stings

from starfish didn't stop the plucky hero arriving on the Calais shore some 21

hours later. He soon became a national hero and featured everwhere from

comic books to matchbox labels. Sadly this hero was undone by his fatal

attempt to swim the rapids below Niagara Falls.

Webb was trained by Mordecai 'Marquis' Bibbero who famously swum between Brooklyn and New York

with his hands mannicled. In 1908, to celebrate his golden wedding and the 33rd anniversary of Captain

Webb's famous crossing, Bibbero gave a display of swimming off the coast of Dover.

typhoo t card 'great achievements'

erroneously showing the hero swimming the 'crawl'. Apparently, he swam breastroke!

As a cultural aside, John Betjeman's poem "A Shropshire Lad" (1940)

commemorates the death of Captain Webb,

portraying his ghost swimming back along the canal to Dawley.

Captain Webb's picture on boxes of Bryant and May matches is said to be the inspiration

for the character of Clouseau, portrayed originally in the Pink Panther movies by Peter Sellers.


Since then, many have attempted, failed and even cheated to gain the prestige

of this achievement. Gertrude Ederle, an Olympic gold medallist was one of the

first women to successfully cross the Channel in 1928, shattering the world records

at 14 hours and 31 minutes!

Swedish no.1 swimmer Sally Baueri is seen here off the coast of Dover in 1939

In 1950 Folkestone's own Sam Rockett completed the swim in the Daily Mail Race

in 14 hours 17 mins. He was a local celebrity and entertained sightseers to the town.

He helped to train channel swimmers at the Folkestone open air pool until its closure in the early 1960s.

He was Supervisor for the 1951 Daily Mail Race and also supervisor for Billy Butlin races from 1953 to 1959.

His family have donated the Sam Rockett Collection of photographs to Dover Museum.

More recently, David Walliams of Little Britain fame unbelievably completed

the swim in about 9 hours!

In 2007, we met Peter Jurzynski, aged 56, a plucky American who has swum the

Channel 14 times. We also met a Brazilian, Igor de Souza, who had acheived a world

record for a 'there and back' swim in 1997, and was awarded a Rolex watch in

the days when this company sponsored the swim.

We also met Tony Espin who in 1978 made the heroic crossing and is now an

active observer and promoter of the sport. He also kindly gave me a copy of the

Channel Swimming Association handbook, which will tell you all you need to know

about planning your swim as well as containing inspiring facts and personal recollections.

2007 was obviously a good year for crossings as a Mexican relay team swam the

fastest 3-way relay in 30 hours 7 minutes.

This year, 2010, Clive Burbage dropped by. He features in a short film called 'crossing Hell's Mouth' and

has swum most of the tricky swims around the world. He was part of Team 2+2 CSA and crossed the Channel

in 13 hours 25 minutes. He was wearing a wonderful swimmers watch which not only had info on the tides,

temperatures and direction(compass) but also told the time!

The Rolex Watch Company , for a period of 35 years, from 1970 - 2004, presented

a 'Submariner' watch to the fastest channel swimmer of the year in addition to supplying

each Observer with a totally accurate timepiece for the purpose of timing the swim!

Of course not all attempts to swim the Channel are successful

and the motto that appears below Captain Webb's memorial on the Dover seafront,

"nothing great is easy" says it all.


The oldest man to have achieved the swim is Clifford Batt (Australia)

who at 67 years old swum across in 18hours 37mins in 1987.

The oldest woman is Carol Sing (USA) who succeeded aged 57

in 12hours 32mins in 1999.

The 'King of the Channel' is Michael Read (UK) who has swum 33 successful crossings.

The 'Queen of the Channel' is Alison Streeter (UK) who has swum 39 successful crossings.

REMEMBER - If you can see France from the English coast, this is a sign of

bad weather to come.

and one ancient line of wisdom

'For wreaking havoc upon a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire

as the sea' - Homer

Channel Swimming Association coat of arms

which appears on every certificate for an officially recognised swim.

rare Channel Swimming Association Observers bullion badge and blazer buttons from 1950s p.o.a.


limited edition of 25



captain matthew webb screenprint Captain Webb souvenir shopping bag

limited edition screenprint

edition of 30 SOLD OUT

click here to read the background to the print

2015 - NEW SCREENPRINT is here!

edition of 50, available @ £35

rare survivor
- six unused 'Captain Webb' safety matchboxes
in original packaging with
printed image of the famous swimmer,


commemorative tankard sold


Channel crossing photo

1920's original photo of Mlle Pfanner on her celebrated Channel crossing hydrocycle,

(with tins of sustaining Ovaltine on the handlebars!) sold

1956 press photo of showgirls Kay Harris and Una Denton testing the water scooter in Folkestone in preparation for Channel crossing. £55



and for something equally unusual but this time contemporary as reported in The Guardian January 2011

Jonathan Trappe crossed the Channel with the aid of a bunch of coloured balloons.



for a personal history of swimming, beautifully produced and illustrated,

Susie Parr's The Story of Swimming takes us on a fascinating journey

ending in 'wild swimming', (c.192pp. hardback £25)

Susie Parr Story of Swimming
swimming medallion (inscribed 9 ARMD. WKSP winner on reverse) sold
bronze swimming medallion sold



here is the award winning caravan site where many Channel Swimmers have prepared for their crossing - Varne Ridge Folkestone

Channel Swimming Varne Ridge Folkestone


Varne Ridge Folkestone


FILM ABOUT CAPTAIN WEBB released September 2015


NEW May 2024
film about Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel
Woman and the Sea

and charming animation advertising BBC documentary ...


K's t shirt designs reach Japan

Hours before taking the plunge 6 August, Jean Craven of South Africa
completed in 11.44
This is from Karen's very first film taken with her Rolleiflex camera!

2017 for charity, Emma Watson from Imperial College London prepares to swim across the Channel,
interviewed here by Alyson Walsh.

August 2018
memoir of Tom Gregory, swimming the Channel aged only 11years old!


as an aside here are some c.1980s Hovercraft souvenir badges of the Channel crossing

charming and informative exhibition Dover Museum Summer 2023
(2nd and 3rd photos relate to Susan Lowry who was President of Channel Swimming Association 2000 - 2007) Dover, at the Golden Lion public house
there is a wall of fame where some of the swimmers sign their names