Captain Matthew Webb (19 January 1848 – 24 July 1883) was the first recorded person to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids. On 25 August 1875 he swam from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours.
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 swim.
On August 24th 1875 smeared in porpoise oil, Webb dived into the water near Dover 's Admiralty Pier. Backed by three escort boats , he set off into the ebb tide at a steady breaststroke. Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez which prevented him reaching the shore for five hours. Twenty-one hours and 45 minutes after setting off 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. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles (64 km) long.
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.