Captain Webb - The History of the first man to swim the channel
MATTHEW WEBB a true Son of Shropshire England, was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Dawley on January 19th 1848 , named after both his Grandfather Matthew Webb of Broseley, and his Father Matthew Webb of Ironbridge (1813-1876) a surgeon. Webb junior the oldest of 7 children born to his parents Matthew and Sarah Webb (1822-1877) had learned to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale and aged 12 years enlisted into a maritime career with the Conway training ship at Liverpool , progressing to be a Master with the Cunard Line , before choosing to become a professional endurance swimmer in 1874.
On August 24th 1875 smeared in porpoise oil, Webb dived into the water near Dover 's Admiralty Pier. Twenty-one hours and 45 minutes later he waded ashore at Calais much to the delight of the passengers & crew of the mailship The Maid of Kent, who witnessed his final effort's. 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."

News of Matthew Webb's amazing feat filtered back to his home community here in Shropshire, he returned in triumph and arriving at Wellington railway station was met by large crowds of locals, eager to share in the glory and heap deserved praise on their own Local Hero . It is known that he was escorted back to Dawley amid a carnival atmosphere boosted by the able ability of the Shifnal Brass Band . The journey itself was to spawn endless tales of folklore. Arriving as we have into the new Millennium and the year 2000, locals to this day, 125 years on, still refer to The Pig On The Wall . Legend has it that as the Band led Webb's procession into Dawley, a pig placed its front trotters onto the wall of its sty, to watch the band pass by.

Matthew Webb's achievement not only raised morale of folk in Shropshire, but throughout the Country, he also received world wide acclaim for his success, it brought the sport of swimming to great heights, but he chose a typical English sport to compare when discussing the physical pain of his Channel Crossing. " The sensation in my limbs is similar to that after the first day of the Cricket season". The London Stock exchange had set up a Testimonial Fund for Webb, it raised £2,424.00 of which he gave his father £500.00 and invested £1.782.00 hoping to provide a guaranteed income for life of £87.00. Basing himself at 21 Tavistock Crescent, Kensington in London , Webb was to lose his parent's within 2 years of his channel swim, and pursued overseas lecture tours. He married 21 year old Madeline Kate Chaddock at St. Andres Church Kensington, they had 2 children, (Matthew & Mary).

Webb continued to earn money from his swimming strengths, records show he won large sums of money, from races off Manhattan and also beat US champion Paul Boyton in a so called "World Championship Race" off Nantasket Beach . Bizarrely he also won £1,000.00 for floating in a tank of water at Boston Horticultural Show for 128 hours. Dawley & Shropshire lost their favoured Son at 4pm on July 24th 1883 when he drowned in a "whirlpool" at the foot of Niagara Falls , he had hoped to earn a £12,000.00 fortune by swimming under and across the swirling water. Wife Madeline was ignorant of his intentions, yet thousands of onlooker's were reportedly brought to the Falls by special trains, Matthew Webb uttered the words "If I die they will do something for my wife", he died when he hit his head on jagged rocks beneath the raging torrent, his body was recovered down stream 4 days later.

Tribute's to Captain Webb were unprecedented, a friend Robert Watson who travelled to the venue with him wrote, " As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame". The spectators who lined both banks of the raging river saw Matthew Webb dive in wearing the same costume he had used 8 years earlier when he stepped ashore in Calais, he was instantly gripped by the force of the current. "At first he kept on his way, swimming, then abruptly he threw up his arms and was drawn under", (words from Charles Sprawson 's classic study of Captain Matthew Webb, Haunts of The Black Masseur published by Cape, 1992).

Webb's legendary tales gripped the world for decades, in life he became a hero, in death the object of commercialism, here in Shropshire his monument was recently restored, whilst throughout the globe countless people try to trace their own family's heritage, wondering if it is linked to the Captain. Most will find their trail ends in disappointment but many have taken heart from the man's personal observation of life. Captain Webb has no direct decendents alive in the year 2000, his Great Grand-Daughter emigrated to South Africa and died childless.

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