The Channel with Charlie Connelly
This week Dr Sam Willis talks with bestselling writer and award winning broadcaster Charlie Connelly about the fascinating history of the English Channel. Is it a bulwark against invasion, a conduit for exchange, a challenge to be conquered? It is all those and so much more: The Channel is many different things to many different people, and in our new age of Brexit it remains as important as it ever has been. It is still the busiest shipping lane in the world and hosts more than 30 million passenger crossings each year. Charlie entertains us with an extraordinary mix of characters: geniuses, cheats, dreamers, charlatans, visionaries, eccentrics and naked balloonists, whose stories have all made the English Channel the cultural icon it is today. Charlie’s book ‘The Channel: the Remarkable Men and Women who Made it the most Fascinating Waterway in the World‘ is out now.
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From the Society for nautical research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. We begin as ever with our friends, the sailors on the whaleship, the Swan of Hull. Trapped in the ice of the west coast of Greenland, in the spring of 1837. These readings come from a transcription of the logbook held in the archives of the Caird library in the National Maritime Museum in London. The transcription has been made especially for this podcast. You are the first people ever to hear these words read aloud. This podcast episode is itself a little piece of maritime history. Spring has arrived but the conditions are becoming as desperate as they ever have been. The ship is now free of the ice but drifting, and they can see the end of their rations. They have four weeks before the rations run out, though many may die before then. They decide to make a break to try and reach land.
Thursday 29th of April, light variable winds with fine clear weather. The ship having drifted North since yesterday, several miles. One whole cask full of red is now left, 27 hands having been served out of the other, so that in four weeks time it will be impossible to stay by the ship. Abandon her we must, for there is not the least hope of being liberated, being frozen in the very centre of an immense field of ice. A reduction in our allowance of provision would be attended with serious result. Four of our crew being laid in the last stage of scurvy, while the majority of the remaining are suffering from the same disease. At noon, the following men came forward and offered for the safety of the ship to launch a boat astern and attempt to reach the Danish settlement of New Island Point or Lively as the opportunity offered. A 250 gallon shake number 67 put up today. Latitude by observation 70 degrees 30 North, thermometer 26 degrees. Saturday the first of April. Light winds with fine clear weather. At 5am the following men left the ship with a whaleboat, seven pounds of bread each, two pieces of beef, one pork, and one cheese, and other necessaries, accompanied by two watches. We assisted them in launching as far as possible, being prevented from proceeding further by lanes of water and bare ice. David Huddut, William Harper, William Barrow, Alexander Anderson, James Jameson belong to the ‘Margaret’s of London’ and the following part of our crew. Daniel Night, Thomas Kelly, William Walker, Robert Derby, our Collins, John Nuttall, Bruce Nelson, Magnus Harrison, John Brown. Find clear weather to the end of the day with a light airy wind from the north. At 7pm, our travellers were just perceptible from the masthead, apparently making great progress. Thermometer is standing at 14 degrees. Latitude 70 degrees by 30 north.
This week, I am talking with the excellent Charlie Connelly we’re very lucky here because Charlie is a best selling writer and an award winning broadcaster. You may know him from his excellent book, ‘Attention all Shipping’ a journey around the shipping forecast. I absolutely promise you that we will get him back on in the future to talk about the fascinating history of the shipping forecast. For now, we’re going to be talking about the English Channel. Is it a bulwark against invasion, a conduit for exchange, a challenge to be conquered? Of course it’s all those things and more. The English channel is particularly fascinating because it’s many different things to many different people. In our new age of Brexit and being separated now from Europe, it’s as important as it ever has been. It’s still the busiest shipping lane in the world and hosts more than 30 million passenger crossings each year. To find out more here is the fabulously entertaining Charlie Connelly. Charlie, thnks so much for talking to me today.
It’s a pleasure, Sam, thanks for having me.
So why, very broad question why the maritime world is a topic for your books. What brought you into writing about the sea?
Well, I’ve got this kind of lengthy maritime heritage, some of which isn’t very impressive. In the family, from going back to the shipwrights and dockers mainly, shipwrights in Rotherhithe and on the Sussex coast in Itchenor. My great grandparents had a ships laundry in London Docks at Silvertown. My great grandfather made an accidental voyage by taking the laundry back onto a ship during the First World War in 1917. Stayed for a drink with the sailors, got drunk, and the ship sailed with him on it, and he was gone for eight months. I’ve also recently discovered a five times great grandfather, who was a captain of whaling ships in the South Seas. He’s a little bit more distinguished on the maritime front than my great grandfather, I’m quite proud of this mixed maritime heritage. I’ve always had this fascination with the sea as a result, and luckily its turned into a few books.
Do you think it is actually as a result of your heritage?
It could be, I grew up with the stories, like those of my great grandfather, but I’ve only discovered that it went way back. I’ve gone back to a captain in the East India Company in the late 17th century called Captain William Heath. One of the few written records I found of him said that the ship was lost at Blackwall due to the pride and obstinacy of Captain Heath. I thought, yeah, he’s related to me.
Sorry, when I asked because I come from a naval family. My grandfather was in the Navy. His father was in the Navy we suspect even further back they were. I’ve also recently discovered that the Cutty Sark was made by a guy called Jack Willis, known as White Hat Willis because he wore a white top hat, which I think is properly cool. Anyway, I’m just naturally been interested in this. And I’m absolutely convinced that it is in my blood. I don’t even know what that means. I’m a historian. It’s kind of thing historians shouldn’t actually say but I really believe it’s true. It’s interesting that you’ve said the same thing.
I love the Cutty Sark as well. I used to live about five minutes walk from it,and used to spend ages on the Cutty Sark so I know White Hat Willis. You’re related to White Hat Willis? That’s fantastic.
Well, no, I’d like to think I am, I’m going to try and prove it, if there are any maritime researcher’s out there who are also genealogists, can you please, I’ll pay you to prove that I related to White Hat Willis What’s cool about him is that his he had a family motto, which is, where there’s a will is a way, which is very well known. But it’s written as in where’s there’s a Willis away? Excellent. So I believe a photo of it. My dad’s got it on his desk, which is kind of cool. Anyway, so now you’ve been writing about the English Channel? Hmm. That’s one one serious topic. very timely. Did you decide before this whole Brexit shenanigans you’re gonna write about the channel? Or has it been lurking for a while,
it wasn’t connected directly, I must admit, I mean, obviously, Brexit brought the channel into a much sharper focus. But I moved to a town called Deal on the coast of Kent about 2016. I actually live right on the channel. I mean, the beach is literally outside the house here. So I can see the horizon when I look out the window. So I was going down to the channel every day, I was like swimming in the channel every day. A kind of fascination grew on me, especially when in some mornings, when it’s clear, you can go down to the beach, and you can see France on the other side. It’s that close. I mean, there’s 21 miles between Dover and Calais, it’s a little bit further to Deal we,re about 10 miles up the coast, from Dover. In in the evenings, on clear evenings, you can see the different orange glows in the sky, which are the streetlights of Calais, Dunkirk, and Gravelines. I’ve really got this sense of how narrow the channel is. Obviously, it’s got this long and significant history and symbolism as well. It’s a combination of factors. I mean, Brexit wasn’t a direct influence on me right in the book, obviously, it’s always going to be bubbling away in the background now. It’ s a general historical fascination, plus my new proximity to the channel that drew me to write about it.
Yeah, I think you mentioned the symbolism of it there. It’s fascinating, and it’s something that I’ve come across quite a lot in my work, and also, my filming. I’ve been filmed on boats bobbing around by the White Cliffs so often because it’s such a distinctive image and TV documentary makers want to have it behind the presenters all the time. It’s a symbol as for people arriving, say, in the Windrush generation for abroad, they see the White Cliffs of Dover, but also for people, you know, coming home, there’s both a new thing to see and a kind of well known thing to see,.
It’s been in the news recently that the cliffs are kind of collapsing as well, so they probably read some kind of symbolism into that. This is the busiest waterway in the world. As far as far as I know, I can’t think of a busier one. It always has been, when you think of all the great symbolic voyages that have gone along the channel, even when they’re on their way from somewhere else, from when the White Ship went down in 1120, right up to Shackleton and his crew, and Nelson obviously. Most of those great voyages, Drake, the Armada, they all seem to come back to the channel. We do have this symbolism in this country involved with the White Cliffs. And yeah, I come back from France on the ferry and that first glimpse of the White Cliffs I think great nearly home, almost literally now I live very close to Dover, as well. There’s just a big sort of weight of history there, it’s always been. I prefer to see the channel as a conduit rather than a moat, a connector. It’s only in recent couple of centuries that we’ve kind of had this famous mythical newspaper headline of fog in channel, continent cut off. It wasn’t a real headline, but it’s kind of plausible when you think about it as as a headline in some of the papers. It’s only the last couple of centuries really, that it’s been seen more as a as a moat than a connection. I mean, as far back as the sixth century, there was Saint Gildas wrote about that Britain was protected on three sides by the sea, but on the southern side is where the ships go to and from Gaul, so that wasn’t seen as kind of protective thing then. It has become the White Cliffs, especially, as a symbol are visually striking. You can almost Vera Lynn singing whenever you think about the White Cliffs. Sometimes when I look across from from the beach here, and I see France, especially in the evening, when the sun’s coming from the west, you see that France has White Cliffs as well, It doesn’t seem to attach the same symbolism to them. I’ve got a postcard, over my desk, of the White Cliffs near Cap Grig Nez to remind me that it’s not just the White Cliffs of Dover, there’s the White Cliffs of France as well because I prefer to think of it as a kind of a big chalk ridge that fell apart 8000 years ago and created the English Channel, so that the cliffs were actually part of a link between us and the rest of Europe. I like that thought that on the other side, there’s the the sheared off cliffs in France as well as here.
It’s easy to kind of forget that if you imagine the channel, it’s a bit like a mirror isn’t it? You’ve got the White Cliffs on both sides of the channel. Then if you go the other end, you know, kind of opposite Cornwall down to Brittany, the coastlines there are the same as well, and it’s very much mirrored, very similar indeed. I don’t think people recognise that as much.
The Breton’s and the Cornish, of course, they have their own languages that I think are fairly similar. The Cornish language and the Breton language there is, which is really fascinating, when you think how far apart they are compared to this end of the channel, where people can swim between England and France. That end of the channel to still have that kind of distinct connection in terms of language, I think it’s really fascinating.
It’s also having a country and having the variety of of the coastlines that they’ve got to deal with. If I went down to Deal It’s radically different from Dartmouth.
I mean, we’re a shingle beach here we got Margate, sandy beach, even even on that hyperlocal level, it’s a coastline of varieties, as the brochure would say
I loved all the all of the different stories in your book, I was particularly pleased to see a chapter on the wreck of the Amphitrite. I say this because one of our earliest episodes of the Mariners mirror podcast was a sneak preview of the new Turner exhibition at the Tate. Which included the Turner’s astonishing painting of a wreck, which we think is the Amphitrite. For everyone listening do please, I urge you to go back through our catalogue and check out that episode, we essentially have a private tour with the curator of the Tate exploring Turner’s brilliant maritime art. Tell me a little bit about about this wreck and why you chose to write about it.
I just think that it’s an incredible tragedy. It’s a horrendous tragedy on every level, the Amphitrite which was 1833, I mean the channel has got a tragic history, As mentioned earlier, the White Ship back in 1120, the Penlee lifeboat, even right up to the footballer Emiliano Sala a couple of years ago, his plane went down in the channel. So it is a narrow Seaway just packed with tragedy. There was something about the Amphitrite that really struck me, it was transporting women prisoners to Australia in 1833, and over 100 of them drowned, and only three crew members survived. I think they’re not really certain exactly how many people were on the ship, but they reckon it was 130ish, including the crew, and only three crew members survived. I looked into some of the stories of the women convicts, and some are heartbreaking. There was a woman called Mary Brown, who was 19 years old and her husband had been transported to Australia. She deliberately stole some cloth from a shop in order that she might get convicted, transported and sent out to join him. There was a woman called Maria Hoskins, who had I think had a kind of pre arranged crime because she was determined to go to Australia. From what I can gather, reading between the lines and making a few assumptions, she had been very wronged by a man, whose name was Farmer. She stole a watch from her landlady and took it to the pawn shop. The landlady had only been gone 10 minutes came back, Oh, where’s my watch? O I’ve pawned it. I’m not telling you where it is. The landlady calls a policeman, and she said to the policeman, I am determined to be transported to Australia, because I’ve got to get away from Mr. Farmer.I think maybe the landlady and Maria Hoskins came to this arrangement. So there were some hardened criminals on that ship as well. But a lot of stories are really tragic. I mean, women’s position in society then was worse than it is now. Some of them were really badly treated by by men. They ended up being transported for anything from seven years, up to a lifetime. Some of the stories were really kind of heart rending. What happened was, the ship sailed from Woolwich and it got round to Dungerness and a storm blew up. They think it was a fairly persistent storm, the 31st of August 1833. The ship ran aground about three quarters of mile off Boulogne. The captain thought he could ride it off on the next high tide. The sea was so rough that all the people in Boulogne were lined up on the shore, saying he’s never going to get off that sandbank, they’ve got to get off the ship. He, Captain Hunter, and the ship surgeon, guy called James Forester, who apparently treated Lord Byron as well in an earlier time, were determined that these women weren’t going to get off the ship I think they was talk that they were on a pound a person bonus when they got to Australia, for everyone that arrived safely. There was also talk that the captain was going to be fined 1000 pounds for any prisoner escapes. So even though that ship was in grievous mortal danger, they were determined that these women weren’t going to be allowed off the ship. A boat went out and said, We can take you off. The captain said, No, thank you. We’re all right. It was getting so obviously dangerous that a local man from Boulogne actually swam out to the ship and said, throw me a rope, I’ll take you back to the shore and we can start getting you off, some sailors threw a rope and he started swimming back and this rope was yanked out of his hands, because it’s like, no one’s getting off the ship. Predictably the ship broke in half. All these women were tossed into the sea, and the crew, they nearly all drowned, in the fact all the women did drown, only three crew members survived. The crew members that survived, came back with some horrible stories that the surgeons wife was saying “I’m not getting in a boat with any of those women”. They had a lifeboat that it would have held 60 people, so two runs in the lifeboat everyone lives. They were just determined that these women weren’t gonna get on the boat, the surgeons wife didn’t want to mix with these terrible convicts. This ended up creating this horrendous disaster and all these bodies started washing up on the shore. Most of them are completely unmarked. I think there’s 83 women are buried in a mass grave in what was called the English Cemetery in Boulogne. It’s now called the Eastern Cemetery. I went and visited the the grave there, when I went over to Boulogne, and left some flowers. I was thinking I’m probably one of the only people that’s ever been to visit them, because they were all from poor families. You wouldn’t know exactly who’s down there because none of the bodies could be identified. Most of them had their clothes removed by the sea when they were washed up. You couldn’t really identify anyone, and no one could really afford it to go and visit them. I felt really kind of inadequate, leaving a bunch of chrysanthemums from Tescos in Deal on this grave in Boulogne. There was something about that disaster that really got under my skin somehow, just the sheer tragedy of it. The little poignant details of their their little boxes washing up on the shore that contain the sewing kits that they were taking, and the flat irons they were taking out that to start this new life even as convicts. Just these little poignant touches that kind of bring home the scale of a big tragedy like that. I think the Amphitrite is an awful tragedy and and no one really lived to be accountable for it either. You have the captain drown, the surgeon drown. It’s just one of those terrible tragedies that the channel throws up and seas all over the world throw up
And became so famous because I think it was avoidable. As many of these these stories which become real press sensations is a:- the horror of it, and b:-the fact that for whatever reason, whether it’s navigational error or just people caught up in their own confusion of what’s required of their own behaviour. I love the fact that you took flowers to the grave. I’m trying to find ways that the listeners of the mariners mirror podcast can get involved in maritime history. I think it’s a wonderful idea to go and take some flowers to the grave site of the Amphitrite, do that, send us some photos, you can find us on instagram or twitter or wherever and we’ll share the memory it’s an absolutely lovely idea
It’s an easy grave to find as well. It’s quite close to the entrance so you can’t really miss it, it’s a big obelisk
I’m going to go myself. Now there are all sorts of wonderful characters, it’s like the English Channel for some reason attracts eccentrics, I’m not quite sure why that is, and maybe it’s a little fair to say that these people in the past were actually eccentric. There are certainly some remarkable remarkable characters and remarkable stories. I love the the way you wrote about John Bart tell us about him.
Oh yeah sure he was one of my favourite characters in fact I’ve got a little snow globe, that I bought in Dunkirk, of John Bart’s statue, I keep it on my desk in front of me all the time that’s how much of a fan I am. John Bart was one of the great characters of the English Channel, and probably people on this side of the channel aren’t as familiar with him as people in France would be, but there he’s basically he’s quite a bit of a popular character. He was a incredible daring, audacious, flamboyant captain of military ships. He was born in Dunkirk in 1650 and he came from a line of privateers and sea captains and his uncle blew himself and his ship up in a war with the Dutch, so they wouldn’t get their hands on the ship. He had quite a much more impressive maritime heritage than me that’s for sure, and he went to sea at an early age John Bart when he was 17. He was part of the dutch fleet that sailed up the Medway and captured the naval flagship the Royal Charles and carried that off, when he was just 17. My favourite story of his was in 1688 when there was so many wars going backwards and forwards back then they’re practically on a rotor. Was it the war of the kingdom of Augsburg? Can’t remember what it is, 1688 . He was captain of the ship by then and he was escorting some Dutch merchant ships back towards Dunkirk and they were attacked off the Isle of Wight by British ships. John Bart was injured and captured and sent to prison in Plymouth with another officer, because he was such a great character he spoke a bit of english as well he kind of charmed the governor of the prison in Plymouth. Persuaded him to let him and his mate have a room over a pub instead of the prison. They put bars over the window and guards outside so they were sitting in this pub basically. A relative of John Bart’s from Ostend, a fishermen, happened to be in town heard John Bart was in town, captured, and went to visit him. In true kind of cartoon slapstick comedy style handed him a massive file, which I don’t think was baked in a cake, but John Bart managed to saw through the bars of the cage. Obviously being in a pub the guards outside were encouraged by their their prisoners to go and enjoy a few pints now and again. The guards fell into a drunken stupor, John Bart and his mate climbed out the window, the relative from Ostend had got hold of a little fishing boat, and off they went. Sailed out into the channel, it was a foggy night, a government cutter tried to intercept them and said “who are you?” and John Bart said in his best Devon accent “fishermen” That was good enough, they spent two and a half days in the channel and ended up getting ashore at Saint Malo, where everyone thought he was dead. He then resumed his career harassing shipping in the channel and almost literally saved France from starvation in 1694. The French arranged with the Norwegians to buy 120 ships full of grain because there were two years of crop failures, and there was real hardship in France at that time. These 120 ships set off too early, John Bart was supposed to be escorting them back but having set off too early got captured by the Dutch. He sailed up to an island off the Dutch coast where they were and made straight for the Dutch flagship and just battered the thing to pieces, rescued these 120 grain ships took them back to France, and starvation was averted for the nation. He was kind of an incredible hero. Two years later 1696 he was involved with the Battle of Dogger Bank where he smashed the blockade.. He was a specialist in smashing through blockades and he smashed through the Dutch blockade at the Battle of Dogger Bank. Rescued 1200 prisoners and took 25 merchant ships captured, and that was his last hurrah really in the in the channel. He’s such a big name that 27 vessels of the French Navy have borne the name John Bart ever since. The current one is a frigate, I think that’s been commissioned since 1985. Not many people know him here, but I think he’s a terrific character. And the statue is very flamboyant as well. If you’re in Dunkirk, he’s got this big floppy hat on with a big feather in it, thigh length boots, and he’s waving his sword around in the direction of the channel. That’s a terrific character.
He looks the business doesn’t he, I know that statue very well. It’s such a flamboyant and interesting period. Those of you who are listening if you don’t know about the Dutch raid on the Medway, look it up, that’s a really impressive piece of of maritime and naval history. Even better go to the Medway and have a look at where it all happened. You can do that, lovely vantage points there. Another another guy you write about Jabez Wolffe ? Is that how I pronounce How do I pronounce J-A-B-E-Z
Jabez I presume it’s Jabez it’s Scottish, so
It’s not Spanish?
No, I don’t think it was a Spanish name, although he was one of about 12 children. Maybe they were just running out of names by the time they got to him and, and came up with this kind of Spanish one. He was known as Jappy, was his nickname, is almost as weird as being called Jabez. Jabez, as well, for another one of my channel heroes. He was the least successful channel swimmer in history.
But he managed to make a career out of it, which is tremendous. He was born in 1875. He made his first attempt in 1906. He made 22 attempts to swim the channel and failed every time. He was such a huge character. He was a huge man for a start, he had this huge barrled chest and a great big head. You felt that every time he plunged into the channel streets in Calais and Dover was in danger of being flooded. He was determined and he knew how to work the show business side of it as well. Because of that in 1906, when he did his first attempt, still only one person had ever succeeded in swimming the channel which was Captain Matthew Webb, way back in 1875. No one else ucceeded until 1911 when a guy called Tom Burgess did it as well. So I mean, that just kind of emphasises what an achievement Matthew Webb pulled off. To do it so far ahead of everyone else. Jabez Wolffe made his first attempt at 1906, he reckons he got a bit overconfident, things were going too well. I don’t know what he meant, but in his account he said I spurted up, joyfully, in the channel, and then he pulled a muscle and had to be pulled out. This set off this kind of legacy of unsuccessful channel swimming. He had 22 attempts he made his last attempt when he was 47 years old, and he failed for set for a variety of reasons, some of which were pretty funny. A lot of the time, it was just the weather was too rough, stung by jellyfish. There was one occasion he was butted by a shark that had injured him and he said that that was very unsportsmanlike on the part of the shark, was his verdict on that. He reckoned at one point one attempt was ruined when a submarine surfaced beneath him. I’m not sure how true a lot of these were, but these are what he was claiming. A favourite one is his most successful, when he got within 800 yards of the Calais coast. He’d been in the water about 20 hours, and then the tide turned and took him back out again. So he was gutted about that one. My favourite one was he said it was in the summer of 1914, he said the glass was up so the temperature was good, the weather was good, the sea was calm, he was feeling really good. Got about halfway across. The First World War broke out. They got word on the ship the First World War had broken out. he had to turn around and go back again. So he didn’t have a lot of luck, but he knew how to spin a yarn as well.
He did It’s like he had a very acute sense of what would make the best headline as an excuse for not being able to swim the channel.
I mean, he’s first attempt 1906. In 1907, he starred in a film which unfortunately been lost by now called The Channel Swimmer. At that point, he was no more of a channel swimmer than I was, he at least swam in the channel. He hadn’t swam across the channel successfully. He really knew how to milk the kind of celebrity side of it and he did become a celebrity He died during the Second World War, it was 1943. There were obituaries in the newspapers in America as well. He’d also doubled up after, as he as he got older, at it became a renowned swimming coach for Channel swimmers. He reckoned he’d swum 600 miles in the channel without actually getting to the other side, over his career, so he knew a lot about swimming in the channel. Didn’t know a lot about what to do when he got to the other side, but he let the swimmers get on with that He coached the first woman to swim the channel an American teenager called, I’m not sure how to pronounce it I’ve only seen it written down Ederle, Trudy Elderle I think E-D-E-R-L-E. He coached her in 1925, and they didn’t really get on. He said she seemed more interested in playing her ukulele than training. She made her attempt in 1925. He was worried that she was really exhausted and was going to drown so he pulled her out. She went back to America and complain that he pulled her out too early. She came back the following year and was trained by Tom Burgess, who was the second man to swim the channel, and then she succeeded and became the first woman to swim the channel. He coached a load of successful channel swimmers. He had kind of unorthodox methods and unorthodox theories of what made a good woman channel swimmer. He said London girls were no good because they’re too, you know. You can’t get them to go to bed before 9:30 and you can’t get them to drink all the bottles of stout you need because they worried about their figure. These London girls no good for swimming the channel. He also said brunettes were too flaky, they would never swim the channel. A brunette woman couldn’t swim the channel. He’s ideal swimmer, for swimming the channel, was a blonde because they had more focus, he reckoned. For all that kind of nonsense. He was a very successful channel swimming coach. And again, one of the great characters of the channel as far as I’m concerned, I’ve got a signed postcard of him over my desk. I keep him and John Bart on my desk as well.
That’s good to do you start the day with five bottles of stout? He sounds wonderful. I’d like to like to know much more about him. A funny guy called Matthew Webb, what did he get up to?
He was the first successful channel swimmer in 1875, and he was kind of the opposite of, of Jabez Wolffe, actually, in almost every sense. He was a merchant seaman. And in 1873, made the headlines. He got lots of medals because he was on a liner called the Russia in the Atlantic and a sailor got swept overboard and Matthew Webb dived in to try and save him, was unsuccessful unfortunately. He didn’t save the sailor, but he was in the Atlantic for about 40 minutes. The sea was about 13 degrees at that stage, it was really cold and he shouldn’t have really survived, he was pulled out, rescued and came back to great acclaim. He developed this obsession with becoming the first person to swim the channel, which he he did in 1875. Like I say, it was 1911 before anyone else did it successfully. So he was way ahead of his time. Unlike today, he did it breaststroke, and because the head is up with the breaststroke, he had these terrible sores on the back of his neck where the salt had rubed his neck. He was in the water for something like 22 hours when he swam the channel and he couldn’t put a shirt on for two weeks because of the sores. He’s post channel swim life was was kind of really tragic, really, because how do you follow being the first man to swim the channel? He tried to do the lecture circuit, but some of the politer reviews said he’s not a natural orator. He didn’t really want to go back to captaining tramp steamers to China for a living. He was determined to kind of make the most of this incredible achievement. His mental health started declining as well. He ended up taking on these really kind of tawdry challenges like swimming in a big tank of water in a theatre in Westminster for a week, and stuff like this and people sort of wander in. Endurance swimming isn’t really a showbiz thing. It’s not even like it was a trick dive, he wasn’t a trick swimmer, He just did breaststroke for long periods of time. That’s not really a crowd puller. There was a terrible one in the end. In 1881, I think it was, he ended up doing this challenge against a dentist in a lake in Lancashire, nobody turned up, he exhausted himself and nearly nearly died. It was a terrible decline from this glory of swimming the channel, in the space of six years to becoming this poor fella just swimming up and down, in a gungy lake in Lancashire, against the dentist.
It’s true, but he was quite innovative. I reckon he would have rocked in the YouTube age. Just kind of come up with all of these wonderful, wonderful things, and probably quite dangerous and quite similar. I’d watch a little YouTube video of him swimming against a dentist
He’d probably fit in with those kind of slow TV things that BBC Four do, that you know, if you follow a sleigh in Norway for three hours or a barge on the Kennet and Avon canal. You just watch Matthew Webb doing his breaststroke back and forward in a tank of water. He came to a tragic end, unfortunately, he tried to swim the rapids at Niagara Falls in 1883, for money. He said, I need the money, I need the money, and unfortunately, he was sucked into a whirlpool and disappeared and washed up dead about two days later. It’s just I think the contrast between him and Jabez Wolffe, that Matthew Webb swam the channel, was the first to do it, became this huge celebrity and had this terrible decline and tragic end. Whereas Jabez will never swam the channel and became this massive, successful celebrity, through this kind of failure to pull it off. Two contrasting characters. But again, there’s something about the channel that attracts this kind of person.
Well, thanks so much for all of those wonderful stories, Charlie, and everyone listening, I would urge you to go and get his book. It’s just called the English Channel by Charlie Connelly. And it’s very, very good indeed. But you also do your own podcast?
Certainly I do a little maritime podcast called Coastal Stories, where I just tell little, nuggets of stories from around the coast of Britain and Ireland. None of them are more than 15 minutes long. I go down to the beach at Deal here, and I record the waves, so you don’t just have to listen to me droning on, there’s the sound of these lapping waves in the background of every episode “coastal stories”, 15 minutes long, all little self contained stories. Wherever you get your podcasts, the second best maritime podcast.
Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you. And we’re definitely gonna get you back on to talk about the shipping forecast, which is what you’re very well known for as well. So looking forward to having you back on the podcast. Charlie, thank you so much for talking to me today. Brilliant.
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