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Early Attempts

Successes and Failures:

Pre-War Channel Swimming 

Captain Matthew Webb's triumph in 1875 proved it was possible for a trained swimmer to cross the Channel unaided. Despite Webb's success, it was to be another thirty-six years before anyone else was to follow in his footsteps.

Nevertheless Webb's successes had inspired a generation of intrepid swimmers and consequently there were several Channel crossing attempts in this period. Below are several noteworthy attempts:

F Holmes 1898 - 1902.

Little is known of Holmes' life, but he is recorded as having made a total of four unsuccessful attempts, to swim the channel from England to France during the period 1898-1902

Holmes' attempts England to France:

  • 19 August 1898 (failed)
  • 24 July 1900 (failed)
  • 28 August 1902 (failed)
  • 19 December 1902 (failed)

 

Montague Holbein 1901 - 1911

Montague Holbein was a renowned swimmer who trained under the world famous fitness instructor Harry Andrews. Holbein attempted to swim the Channel nine times, but each time failed to reach his aim.

Holbein's second Channel crossing attempt in August 1904 was significant as Holbein was swimming as part of the inaugural Channel Race. Holbein competed against two other swimmers, Greasley and Hagerthy. Holbein's wife famously played gramophone records to keep him entertained. Each swimmer was sponsored by a different newspaper and Holbein's sponser was the Daily Mirror. None of the men successfully finished the Race.

Throughout his life, Holbein desired to promote the advantages of swimming to the general public. He wrote a book, entitled Swimming, in which he lamented the fact that so many British citizens did not know how to swim and in which he outlined the many benefits of learning.

Holbein's attempts England to France 

  • 19 January 1903 (failed)
  • 20 August 1904 (failed)
  •  24 August 1905 (failed)

Holbein's attempts France to England

  • 24 August 1901 (failed)
  • 31 July 1902 (failed)
  • 27 August 1902 (failed)
  • 19 January 1907 (failed)
  •  11 August 1909 (failed)
  • 19 March 1910 (failed)

Thomas W. Burgess 1904 - 1911

Yorkshireman Thomas W. Burgess succeeded in becoming the second person to swim the Channel in 1911, thirty-six years after Webb's original success. Burgess was a talented swimmer living in Paris; in 1900 he had successfully won a Bronze model for Water Polo in the Olympic Games.

 

Thomas W. Burgess, second man to swim the English Channel, 1911

Burgess was famed for always wearing motorist's goggles while swimming. One of his first Channel Crossing attempts took place in the second Channel race of 1905. Burgess and five other male swimmers were accompanied by famous Australian swimmer, actress and creator of the one-piece swimsuit, Annette Kellerman. Once again, none of the swimmers attempting the Channel Race were successful.

Burgess was thirty-seven when he finally swam the Channel successfully, following numerous unsucessful attempts. Burgess left Dover near the South Foreland Lighthouse and he landed at Le Chatelet in France twenty-two hours and thirty-five minutes later on 8 September 1911. Throughout his swim, Burgess was accompanied by the Walmer boat Elsie, which was being piloted by H.W. Pearson

In his later life, Burgess trained a number of other successful swimmers including Toth, Gertrude Ederle, Temme, Ivy Hawke and Helmi.

Burgess' attempts England to France

  • 19 August 1904 (failed)
  • 28 July 1905 (failed)
  • 9 August 1905 (failed)
  • 24 August 1905 (failed)
  •  26 August 1905 (failed)
  • 18 August 1906 (failed)
  • 30 August 1906 (failed)
  • 14 August 1908 (failed)
  •  17 August 1908 (failed)
  • 21 August1908 (failed)
  •  19 August 1908 (failed)
  • 8 September 1911 (success)

Burgess' attempts France to England:

  • 13/19/1906 (failed)

Annette Kellerman 1905

 Australian swimming champion, vaudeville star and movie actress Annette Kellerman was only nineteen when she attempted to swim the English Channel on 24 August 1905. Kellerman attempted to swim the Channel a further two times and never succeeded. She was later quoted as saying she "had the endurance but not the brute strength" to succeed. Kellerman's attempts are particularly noteworthy as she was the first woman to attempt to swim the Channel, proving Channel Swimming was not just a man's game.

Kellerman is a fascinating figure. Credited with promoting the one-piece swimsuit for women, Kellerman was even arrested in Boston for wearing the suit in public. By the age of twenty, Kellerman had become a vaudeville aquatics star and later a Hollywood film star. Several of her movies saw her play a mermaid and involved her using her swimming talents to depict the role. Later in life she became a businesswoman and writer.

The glamourous and talented Kellerman attempting to swim the Channel helped promote the idea Channel Swimming was an event. The press became more interested in the Channel Swimming attempts and the public became increasing excited each time a swimmer attempted the challenge.

J. Weidman 1905

J. Weidman was a member of the Dover Swimming Club and a shoemaker, living on Snargate Street. Weidman only attempted to swim the Channel once and was unsuccessful. He remains noteworthy for being the first Dovorian to attempt the swim the Channel. 

Weidman's attempt England to France

  • 19 August 1905 (failed)

E. Heaton 1905 - 1910

E. Heaten made six attempts during the period 1905-1910, all of which were unsuccessful.

Weidman's attempts England to France:

  • 26 July 1905 (failed 6h20m)
  •  5 August 1907 (failed 10h2m)
  • 31 August 1907 (failed 10h5m)
  • 19 August 1907 (failed 2h 45 m)
  •  27 August 1909 (failed 15h20m)
  • 19 January 1910 (failed 16h0m)

Jabez Wolffe 1906 - 1913

 

Jabez Wollfe and William Stearne, 31st August 1907. South Foreland, Dover

Glaswegian Jabez Wolfe has been called the unluckiest Channel swimmer in history: Wolffe made at least twenty-two attempts and never succeeded. He failed by merely yards in 1911 and by less than a mile on three other occasions. 

On his attempt on 31 August 1907, Wolffe was accompanied by Stearne and Heaton. Notably, Wolffe was also on occasion accompanied by Pipe-Major Nicholls who played the bagpipes in order to keep Wolffe's stroke rhythm in time at 29-32 a minute.

On other occasions, Wolffe used a gramophone aboard the pilot boat in order to keep himself entertained and to keep his stroke rhythm equal.

Despite never achieving his aim of crossing the Channel, Wolffe went on to coach several successful swimmers including Hilda Sharp, Peggy Duncan and Sunny Lowry. Wolffe also wrote a book Swimming Short & Long Distance, which was published in approximately 1937.

Wolffe's Attempts England to France:

  • 18 July 1906 (failed)
  • 30 July 1906 (failed)
  • 29 August 1906 (failed)
  •  22 July 1907 (failed)
  • 5 August 1907 (failed)
  • 31 August 1907 (failed)
  • 16 September 1907 (failed)
  •  6 July 1908 (failed)
  •  19 September 1908 (failed)
  • 26 August 1909 (failed)
  • 24 September 1909 (failed).

Wolfe's attempts France to England:

  • 31 July 1910 (failed)
  • 21 July 1911 (failed)
  • 2 September 1911 (failed)
  •  26 August 1913 (failed)

Horace Mew 1905 - 1906

Little is known about Mew except that he made two unsuccessful attempts to swim the Channel in 1905 and 1906 respectively.

Mew's attempts England to France:

  • 24 August 1905 (failed)
  • 24 July 1906 (failed)

William Stearne 1907 - 1911

Talented swimmer William Stearne made a total of four unsuccessful attempts. The first time he tried he swam alongside fellow swimmers Wolffe and Heaton, who also failed. The second time he swam with Wolffe and once again both men failed to complete the swim.

Stearne's attempts England to France:

  • 31 August 1907 (failed)
  • 16 September 1907 (failed)
  • 11 August 1909 (failed)
  •  1 September 1910 (failed)

 

This list is based on research for Dover Museum's collection. It is not a complete list of all swimmers from this era. If you have further information you think would be interesting to add, please please email museumenquiries@dover.gov.uk. Please also include references to the sources of your information.

 

 

 

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