On this date in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb completed the first successful attempt to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids. He swam from Dover to Calais in slightly less than 22 hours, and subsequently gained international fame.
He was born in Dawley in Shropshire in 1848, one of twelve children of a doctor. He learnt to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale, and apparently from the outset it was more than a simple recreation. At age twelve he joined the merchant navy and served a three-year apprenticeship with Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool. Whilst serving as second mate on the Cunard Line ship Russia, travelling from New York to Liverpool, he attempted to rescue a man who had fallen 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 and the Stanhope Medal. It also made him a hero of the British press. In the summer of 1863, while at home, he rescued his 12 year old brother Thomas from drowning in the Severn near Ironbridge.
In 1873 Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald when he read an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson to swim the English Channel. He became inspired to try himself, and left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames and the English Channel. On 12 August 1875 he made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the effort.
On 24 August 1875, with the Dover tide in his favor, he began a second attempt 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. He had to endure stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cape Gris Nez which prevented him reaching the shore for five hours. Finally, after 21 hours and 45 minutes, he landed near Calais—the first successful cross-channel swim. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles (64 km) long. His arrival at Calais was witnessed by the passengers and crew of the mail ship The Maid of Kent. Webb recalled in his diary, “Never shall I forget when the men in the mailboat struck up the tune of Rule Britannia, which they sang, or rather shouted, in a hoarse roar. I felt a gulping sensation in my throat as the old tune, which I had heard in all parts of the world, once more struck my ears under circumstances so extra-ordinary. I felt now I should do it, and I did it.”
After his record swim Captain Webb basked in national and international adulation, and followed a career as a professional swimmer. He licensed his name for merchandising such as commemorative pottery, and wrote a book called The Art of Swimming. A brand of matches was named after him. He participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
His final stunt was to be a dangerous swim through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls, a feat many observers considered suicidal. Although Webb failed in an attempt at raising interest in funding the event, on 24 July 1883 he jumped into the river from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began his swim. Accounts of the time indicate that in all likelihood Webb successfully survived the first part of the swim, but died in the section of the river located near the entrance to the whirlpool. Webb was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York. One of his most famous sayings should serve as his epitaph: “Nothing great is easy.”
Naturally we have to celebrate Webb with a Shropshire recipe, which allows me once again to trumpet the wonders of great English cooking. There’s Shropshire Blue cheese, for example, somewhat like a cheddar but with blue veins. Then there are Shropshire cider and perry – impossibly flavorful and complex when at their finest, with amazing variety. But Shropshire’s pride are the many varieties of pie made from local ingredients – Shropshire hare pie, Shropshire apple pie, and, most especially, Shropshire fidget pie. There are recipes for fidget pie that are 400 years old, all variations on a theme: ham, apples, potatoes, and onions in a gravy made with stock or cider and encased in pastry. There is a modern version that is now popular which has a pastry bottom crust and a mashed potato topping. The recipe calls for Shropshire gammon, but you can use any good thick ham steak. Here’s a classic:
Shropshire Fidget Pie
12oz (370g) gammon steak (or ham steak)
2 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored, and diced
1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 ½ lbs (750g) potatoes, peeled and diced
¼ pt (160ml) cider
2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage or 2 tsps dried sage
flaky pastry to cover
1 egg beaten
Preheat oven to 375°F/180°C
Cook the diced potatoes in salted boiling water for around 15 minutes. Drain and reserve.
Dice the gammon and sauté in a pan in the butter with the onions until very lightly browned. Add the cider and sage to the pan and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add the apples and potatoes and stir to mix. Heat through on simmer for another 2 -3 minutes, and then remove from the heat and let cool.
Place the pie filling in a deep 9 inch (23 cm) pie dish and cover with pastry. Brush with beaten egg. Cut a steam vent in the top, and bake at 375°F/180°C for 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden.