Webb, Matthew (DNB00)

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WEBB, MATTHEW (1848–1883), known as ‘Captain Webb,’ the Channel swimmer, was born on 18 Jan. 1848 at Dawley, Shropshire, where his father and grandfather, alike named Matthew, had both practised as country doctors. His father (b. 1813; d. at Ironbridge, 15 Dec. 1876), who had qualified as M.R.C.S. in 1835, subsequently moved to Madeley and then to Ironbridge, where the swimmer's brother, Mr. Thomas Law Webb, is still in practice. Matthew was one of a family of twelve children, eight of whom were sons. He learned to swim in the Severn before he was eight, and saved the life of a younger brother who was endeavouring to swim across the river for the first time. The perusal of Kingston's ‘Old Jack’ inspired him with a strong desire to go to sea, and having been trained for two years on board the Conway in the Mersey, during which period he saved a comrade from drowning, he was in 1862 bound apprentice to Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool, and engaged in the East India and China trade until his indentures expired in 1866. He then shipped as second mate under various owners, and in 1874 was awarded the first Stanhope gold medal upon the occasion of the centenary dinner of the Royal Humane Society, for jumping overboard the Cunard steamship Russia on 22 April 1873 while a stiff breeze was blowing and the ship cutting through the water at the rate of 14½ knots, in an endeavour to save a seaman who had fallen from the rigging (Swimming Notes and Record, 1884; Royal Humane Society Annual Report, 1874). Soon after this he backed himself to remain in the sea longer than a Newfoundland dog, and after Webb had remained in the water about an hour and a half it was found that ‘the poor brute was nearly drowned.’

In January 1875 Webb joined the Emerald of Liverpool, and acted as captain for six months; but in June of this year he determined to relinquish the mercantile marine. In the following month he established a record among salt-water swimmers by a ‘public swim’ from Blackwall Pier to Gravesend, a distance of some twenty miles, in 43/4 hours (3 July); this was eclipsed on 25 July 1899 by M. A. Holbein.

At the beginning of August 1875 public interest was greatly aroused by the announcement that Webb intended to attempt the feat of swimming across the English Channel without any artificial aid. The attempt made by J. B. Johnson to swim the straits in August 1872 had ended in a fiasco. On 28 May 1875 Captain Paul Boyton, the American life-saving expert, had, after one failure, successfully accomplished the feat of paddling across the Straits when clothed in his patent dress; but although the journey demonstrated the great value of the dress, the paddle in itself was mere child's play in comparison with the task which Webb set himself to accomplish. His first attempt on 12 Aug. was a failure, owing to the fact that he drifted upwards of nine miles out of his proper course in consequence of the strong current and the stress of weather. Twelve days later he dived from the Admiralty Pier, Dover, a few seconds before one o'clock in the afternoon (31/4 hours before high water on a 15 ft. 10 in. tide), and swimming through the night by a three-quarter moon reached Calais at 10.40 A.M. next morning (25 Aug.), having been immersed for nearly twenty-two hours, and having swum a distance of about forty miles without having touched a boat or artificial support of any kind. Great anxiety had been felt by his supporters and the special correspondents upon the lugger which accompanied him, owing to the fact that off Cape Gris Nez the wind arose, the sea became choppy, and between eight and ten in the morning scarcely any progress appeared to be made, while Webb was getting thoroughly exhausted. The successful accomplishment of such a feat gave Webb a pre-eminence among all swimmers of whom there is any record. A handsome testimonial was presented to Webb as the result of a public subscription (the amount of the wager against him being only 125l.)

At the time of his performance Webb was twenty-seven and a half years old, his chest measured 40½ in., his height was 5 ft. 8 in., and he weighed 14 stone 8lb. His body was anointed with porpoise grease, and he was sustained while treading water by doses of cod-liver oil, beef-tea, brandy, coffee, and strong old ale. He used the ‘breast stroke’ almost exclusively, averaging twenty strokes per minute. He was examined by Sir William Ferguson and other surgeons, and his exploit was pronounced by medical opinion to stand almost unrivalled as an instance of human prowess and endurance (Brit. Med. Journal, 28 Aug.; cf. Lancet; the best account of the details of the ‘leviathan swim’ is in Land and Water, 7 Aug., 28 Aug., 4 Sept., with map showing the zigzag course, and 11 Sept. 1875).

During the next few years Webb gave exhibitions of diving and swimming, but mainly of his power of endurance in the water, at various towns in the provinces, at the Westminster Aquarium, and in the United States. Despite these efforts, however, his capital dwindled, and his health seemed on the point of breaking. In the early summer of 1883 he resolved to make a further bid for public favour by attempting to swim through the rapids and whirlpool at the foot of the Niagara Falls. The design was so foolhardy as to be hardly distinguishable from suicide; but a considerable amount of capital seems to have been embarked upon the enterprise, mainly by the railway companies bearing excursionists to Niagara. The ferry-man at Niagara, after a last attempt to dissuade him from the enterprise, rowed ‘Captain Webb’ out into the middle of the river on the afternoon of Tuesday, 24 July 1883. Webb plunged from the boat about 4 P.M., and in about eight minutes had got through what looked the worst part of the rapids; but at the entrance to the whirlpool he was engulfed. He was perceived to throw up his arms with his face towards the Canadian shore, but was never seen again. He left a widow and two children.

[Times, 26 and 27 July 1883; Field, 28 July 1883, p. 147; Illustr. Lond. News, 28 July, with portrait, and 4 Aug.; Land and Water, 28 July 1883; Sinclair and Henry's Swimming (Badminton Library), 1894, pp. 161–6, with a map of his course across Channel and interesting technical details. Among the short Lives are Randall's Captain Webb (with portrait), Madeley, 1875; Webb's Art of Swimming, ed. Payne, with a coloured portrait and brief autobiographical preface, 1875; Dolphin's Channel Feats, 1875; and a chap-book by H. L. Williams, 1883.]

T. S.