Category Archives: History

Captain Webb, The Dawley Man

Like Everest, it presents an irresistible challenge to the adventurous, simply because, to echo George Mallory, it’s there. At its narrowest point, between Shakespeare’s Beach at Dover and Cap Gris Nez, a headland between Calais and Boulogne, the English Channel might just be 18.2 nautical miles wide, but it forms a formidable barrier that tests the endurance, skill, and enterprise of all but a select band of long-distance swimmers.

These days the favoured starting point is Abbot’s Cliff beach on the south side of Samphire Hoe, about two kilometres from Dover, making it a slightly longer swim, the starting time usually an hour either side of high tide. Permission has to be sought from either the Channel Swimming Association or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, while the French authorities’ marked reluctance to sanction swims means that crossings from France to England are almost a thing of the past.

Despite all the hurdles and challenges, to date there have been 4,133 successful Channel swims, with 1,881 swimmers completing 2,428 solo swims[1], plus another 8,215 swimmers who have taken part in relay swims and special category swims. Famously, Captain Matthew Webb was the first.

Endurance swimming had become popular in the 1870s and after reading of an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Channel, Webb, a strong swimmer, decided to try his luck. After some acclimatisation in the cold waters of the southern English coast, he made his first attempt on August 12, 1875. Webb, though, was beaten by the high winds and adverse weather conditions he experienced.

Undaunted, wearing a red silken swimming costume and his body smothered in porpoise oil, he tried again twelve days later, followed by three boats, supplying him with brandy, coffee, and beef tea. Swimming the breaststroke, he had to endure jellyfish stings, avoid patches of seaweed, and disconcertingly, eight miles short of Cap Gris Nez, a change in tide which forced him to swim for five hours along the French coast waiting for it to abate. Eventually, at 10.41 am on August 25, 1875, Webb clambered wearily on to the shore, having swum the equivalent of 39 miles, mostly against the tide, in 21 hours and forty-five minutes.

News of his achievement spread around the world. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the Captain to be the best-known man in the world, the mayor of Dover opined that no one would repeat the feat, and so enthusiastic was the crowd that greeted him at Wellington station on his return to his native Shropshire that a section uncoupled the horses that were to convey him on to Ironbridge and pulled him along themselves. At Dawley he received “the homage of the town of his birth” and was paraded down the High Street.

Now wealthy and an international celebrity, Webb was not content to rest on his laurels, a decision that was to cost him his life. On July 24, 1883, he attempted to swim across the Niagara Rivers, just down from the Falls. Within ten minutes of entering the water, he was drowned in a whirlpool, his body only recovered four days later. In 1909 Webb’s older brother, Thomas, unveiled a memorial to him in Dawley which bore the legend “Nothing great is easy”.

Next week we will take another dip into the English Channel.


[1] https://www.dover.uk.com/channel-swimming/statistics

Another Dip In The Sea

Taking a dip in the sea was not just prescribed for the infirm. To maintain a healthy constitution, physicians recommended that men bathe daily for five minutes before breakfast while two minutes three times a week was enough for the “weaker sex” and children. The coast also offered an attractive alternative to the tedium of everyday life, as the poet William Cowper noted in Retirement (1782); “but now alike, gay widow, virgin, wife,/ ingenious to diversify dull life,/ and all, impatient of dry land, agree/ with one consent to rush into the sea”. Offering both a mineral spa and the sea, Scarborough became one of Britain’s first, if not the first, seaside resorts by the early 18th century.

While men were able to bathe in puris naturalibus, a practice not banned until 1860, women, to preserve their modesty, entered the sea either fully clothed or in their voluminous undergarments. The idea of mixed bathing was contentious, many resorts adopting a prurient approach by segregating the beach and, by extension, the sea into men-only and women-only areas or imposing set times when one or other of the sexes could bathe.

A bathing machine provided a means for bathers to enter the sea with their dignity intact. John Setterington’s engraving of a beach scene at Scarborough from 1735, which can be seen at the town’s public library, shows an early example, a wooden hut on four wheels with a door at each end. According to Tobias Smollett (The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771)), the bather climbed some wooden steps to enter the machine and undressed while a horse guided by the attendant pulled it to a point where the sea was level with its floor. The bather then plunged headlong into the sea, and when they had finished, clambered back on board to dry off, redress and be conveyed back to the shore. Benjamin Beale refined the design in 1750 by adding a large canvas hood, known as a tilt, which extended the rear of the machine and was supposed to provide extra protection from prying eyes.

A common sight on British beaches for the next 150 years, bathing machines cost six pennies to hire, plus a gratuity for the attendant. Once the bather had returned safely to the shore, the machine was hired out again, although later users would often find that the interior was wet and sandy. They only fell out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century, a recognition, to echo a correspondent to The Graphic in the 1870s, that “it is absurd that a house, a horse and an attendant are necessary to get someone into the sea”. By 1904 Scarborough had replaced them with bathing tents and the last were used in Margate in 1927.

From 1888 until 1914 Folkestone’s beach housed Walter Fagg’s patented bathing machine, two carriages, holding up to nine people each and equipped with clothes pegs, looking glasses, hat racks, wash basins, and even lavatories. Running along tracks sunk into the sand, the carriages were lifted in and out of the sea by a cable attached to a stationary steam engine.

The prospect of men and women in the sea still mortified many, one visitor to Scarborough fulminating that “mixed bathing is the halfway house to mixed sleeping and might be a plank on the river leading to the Niagara of eternal damnation”. Resorts vainly tried to impose standards, segregating beaches, and fining those who disregarded the byelaws.

An owner of a bathing machine at Lytham, according to The Preston Guardian of July 13, 1850, took three gentlemen down to an area reserved for females and received a fine of one shilling with costs of 9s.6d. for his troubles. With the railways bringing hordes of day-trippers eager to sample all that the seaside could offer, the authorities slowly began to realise that they were fighting a losing battle and most of the petty restrictions were abolished or allowed to lapse.

Apart from safety considerations, we are now free to enjoy the sea as we please. How times have changed.

The Snaking Queue

If there is one thing the British are good at, it is queuing or, as the Americans prosaically describe it, standing in line. We grin and bear it, showing a stiff upper lip, a physiognomic combination that, I find, is difficult to pull off with any degree of aplomb.

Our continental brethren are made of sterner stuff and hanging on in quiet desperation, to paraphrase Pink Floyd, is not their way. In the early part of the 20th century, mathematicians and statisticians began to consider the dynamics and component factors of a queue in a formalised way.

The forefather of a branch of mathematics known nowadays as queuing theory was a Dane, Agner Krarup Erlang, who published a paper in 1909 in which he considered the optimal configuration for the Copenhagen Telephone Exchange to reduce waiting times and improve connectivity. It is tempting to think at the time not many operators were needed, given the number of telephone users at the time, but you have to start somewhere. He went on to develop the Erlang theory of efficient networks and the science of telephone network analysis.

Others, principally Kendall and Little, developed upon and refined Erlang’s work and there are, for the non-mathematician, mind-bogglingly fiendish algebraic formulae designed to assist service providers configure an optimally efficient queuing system. When it is all boiled down, though, the key components are when the customer enters the queue and the interval between each arrival, the time it takes for the customer to be serviced, the number of operators, the capacity of the queuing system, and whether the first in are to be served first or to use another form of service provision.

It goes without saying that the analysis is heavily biased towards the service provider rather than the person queuing. No queue may mean that the provider has overcapacity resulting in a waste of resources which, of course, equates to money. Overly long queues mean that there are not enough operators. Queuing theory attempts to find the ideal balance between resourcing the service and the time a customer can tolerate standing in a queue. Queuing theory makes queues an inevitability.

I always thought that the single “snake” line weaving its way to a few service counters was just a nifty way of confining as many people in as small a place as possible, what the police call kettling, and freeing up floor space. For sure, it is intended to do this but its advocates also claim that the process provides two principal benefits to the people in the queue.

It imbues a degree of equity into the process as there is only one queue to join. You just shuffle along until you get to the front. When presented with a choice of queues to join, how many times have you got that sinking feeling that by some innate ability you have managed to select the one that seems to be moving more slowly than any of the others? This source of frustration is eliminated.

Psychologically, so proponents claim, people feel much better if they are on the move than if they are just hanging around. A “snake” line is more likely to keep you on the move as it is feeding several service counters. I find the back of someone’s head only holds my attention for a few seconds at most but as you are snaking along you can at least engage in conversation with the people going the opposite way on the other side of the barrier. Sure, the conversation wouldn’t rival the Socratic dialogues for its perspicacity but there is some comfort to be gained in a mutual moan as to the length of time the process is taking or speculating whether there will be enough time to hit the duty-free shops.

Enthusiastic queue managers see the “snake” line as an opportunity to sell additional product. That’s why in supermarkets and other retail units the human serpent is routed through shelves of unlikely products that you would have given nary a glance to normally, but which become strangely enticing after prolonged contemplation.

They also like to keep you informed to manage your expectations. Notices like “abandon all hope ye who enter here” or the like greet you at the entrance of the “snake” and at varying intervals you will encounter “just thirty minutes to go” or “nearly there”. I treat them as the antithesis of the signs you see on the motorways telling you how long it will take you to get to the next junction. That is a challenge to be beaten. In a queue, I am grateful if I overshoot by less than 50%.

Serpentine queues, I’m afraid, are here to stay and for that you can blame Agner Krarup Erlang and the Copenhagen Telephone Exchange.

How The British Discovered The Sea

In 1626, about half a mile south of the harbour at Scarborough, Mrs Farrow spotted a spring trickling out of the cliff. Curious, she tasted the water and found that it had an acidic taste and “opened the belly”. She took the waters regularly herself and prescribed it to her friends when they were ill. It seemed to make them feel better. Word of its health-giving properties soon got round, attracting “persons of quality” to the North Yorkshire coastal town to take the Scarborough spaw.

Dr Robert Wittie, a physician from Hull, was an advocate of it, claiming that “it cleanses the stomach, opens the lungs, cures asthma and scurvy, purifies the blood, cures jaunders, both yellow and black, the leprossie and moreover a most sovereign remedy against hypocondriack, melancholy and windiness” (Scarborough Spa (1660)). Farrow’s discovery and Wittie’s boosterism put Scarborough firmly on the map, one of around forty-eight spas that were founded in England between 1660 and 1815.

Although the term “spa” was not coined until after the discovery of natural Chalybeate springs in the eponymous Belgian town in 1326, the Romans had enjoyed the benefits of mineral-rich spring waters in places such as Bath and Buxton. The fortunes of Bath’s spa were revived when the local bishop, John Villula, had it rebuilt in 1088 and soon, according to Gesta Stephani (1138), it attracted “from all over England sick people” who came to “wash away their infirmities in the healing waters”.

Temporarily banned by Henry VIII as a potential meeting place for Catholics, spas received a royal fillip when Elizabeth I, visiting Bath to grant it city status, declared that “the thermal waters should be accessible to the public in perpetuity”. She was an enthusiastic imbiber of the waters from Buxton and by the turn of 17th century taking the waters was a fashionable thing to do. Such were the low standards of personal hygiene, though, that attendants had to be employed to scrape the scum of the surface of the waters.

Rivalry amongst the spa towns was intense, but Scarborough quickly realised that it had a significant advantage; it was by the sea. Curiously, for an island nation dependent upon the sea for its economic prosperity, security, and its imperialistic ambitions, Britons were remarkably reluctant to step, never mind, plunge into it.

This all changed in the 18th century when physicians “discovered” the medicinal benefits of sea water. It was seen as a purgative and a cure-all, with patients being prescribed lengthy courses of imbibing sea water, often as much as a pint a day over the course of six months. To make it more palatable, it was sometimes mixed with milk and, for those unable to get to the coast, was sold by the bottle.

Exposing the body externally to sea water was also thought beneficial with physicians advocating a dip in the sea as part of a patient’s health regime. Early morning dips were especially favoured as the sea was at its coldest. Dr Richard Russell’s mantra of “the sea washes away all the Evils of Mankind” proved highly influential, especially amongst the upper classes. His practice, based in Brighton, transformed the once sleepy fishing village into a fashionable seaside resort.

We will another dip next week.

The History Of The Race For Doggett’s Coat and Badge

On August 1, 1715 six watermen chosen by lot, who had completed their seven-year apprenticeship during the previous year, accepted Thomas Doggett’s challenge and rowed their heavy wherries along the 7,400-metre stretch of river from the site of the Old Swan Tavern by London Bridge to the Swan Inn at Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. Rowing against the tide and taking more than two hours of strenuous effort to complete the course, it was a test of endurance and skill. John Opey of Saviour’s Hill, the winner, received a scarlet coat with a solid silver badge on the sleeve showing a leaping horse and the word “Liberty”, as well as a matching cap.

Doggett organised the race each year until his death in 1721. Anxious that the race would not die with him, his Will required his executor, Mr Burt of the Admiralty Office, to establish a Trust to provide annually ad infinitum “five pounds for a Badge of Silver representing Liberty, eighteen shillings for a Livery on which the Badge was to be put, a guinea for making up the suit of livery and buttons and appurtenances to it, and 30 shillings to the Clerk of the Watermen’s Hall”.

Burt, though, was reluctant to assume Doggett’s mantle and passed responsibility and the Trust of £300 to the Fishmongers’ Company, who have organised the race since 1722, although from 2019 they have shared the task with the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. It is Britain’s oldest continuously held rowing race, leaving its more famous Thames rival, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, first held in 1829, trailing in its wake.

The winner still receives a coat and badge to Doggett’s design at a ceremony held at Fishmongers’ Hall. To a fanfare of trumpets, they, together with the Clerk to the Company and Bargemaster, are escorted into the Hall by past winners dressed in their coats and badges. The Clerk describes the race in suitably Homeric style, the Prime Warden drinks to the victor’s health, and then the winner is escorted out to the strains of Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary.

There have been some changes along the way. The race is no longer held on August 1st, the date set according to tides and river conditions. In 1873 the course was reversed, allowing oarsmen to take advantage of the incoming tide. This decision, together with the use of single scull boats, reduced the time to complete the course by three quarters, Bobby Prentice setting the race record of 23 minutes and twenty-two seconds in 1973. Not everyone was enamoured with the change, one contemporary thundering that “this deplorable decision to go with the flow obviously marks the start of the subsequent sustained decline in the British national character”.

The Second World War only put a temporary halt on the race. Suspended during hostilities, nine races were held in 1947, one for each of the years that those completing their apprenticeship were unable to enter. This imaginative solution ensured an unbroken roll of winners from 1715, a precedent followed in 2021 when two races were held after the 2020 event fell foul of Covid restrictions.

In 1988, because of the decline in numbers of watermen and apprentices, the qualification criteria were changed to allow competitors to enter within three years of completing their apprenticeship. The first woman to compete, Claire Burran, came third in 1992.

The 308th Doggett Coat and Badge Race, scheduled for July 19th this year, hit choppy waters when the extreme temperatures led to its postponement. It was eventually held on July 28th with George Gilbert of the Poplar Blackwall and District Rowing Club, who had returned for his final attempt, finishing ahead of first-time entrant Matthew Brookes. The indomitable spirit of the watermen lives on.