Captain Matthew Webb was the first man to swim the Channel in August 1875. Two years later, on 25 June 1877, he hosted a ‘Grand Aquatic Fete’ at Rudyard which included a demonstration of his channel swim in front of a big grandstand full of people. It was estimated over 25,000 people were present and that was on a Monday! Shops and factories in the neighbourhood and Leek were specially closed for the occasion..
The following advert appeared in the Staffordshire Sentinel some weeks beforehand on the 2nd May 1877 and lists all the events that took place that day.
- Captain Webb’s First Grand Aquatic Entertainment giving a mini-representation of his Channel feat.
- All England Swimming Contest.
- Youth’s Swimming Race.
- The talented Professor Agnes Beckworth performing unique feats of Natation.
- Man and Dog swimming race.
- Rescue from drowning, exemplified by Two Talented Swimmers.
- Comic part- the greasy pole and duck hunt.
“It was not long before Captain Webb appeared on the scene, and he could not have chosen a more appropriate situation…”
The day after the event, the same newspaper reported on what a successful day it was!
“Rudyard was en fete yesterday in honour of Captain Webb, “the hero of the Channel,” as he is now called, and his coadjutors in the natatory art.
The day was auspicious, the weather being cool and pleasant, and a large concourse of people assembled on the banks of the lake to see the “aquatic entertainment,” and enjoy the fresh air.
The scene around the end of the lake was charming. The thick fringe of gaily dressed people, backed by the dark green foliage, seemed to set off the dark waters of the lake, which were almost as smooth as a mirror, except when now and again a breeze gently ruffled the surface.
It was not long before Captain Webb appeared on the scene, and he could not have chosen a more appropriate situation.
Standing up in the bow of the umpire’s boat, his figure looked for all the world like that of a British sailor, and a hearty cheer broke from the spectators whom he was observed. His subsequent appearance in the water, when more suo (?), he gave a representation of the “Channel swim” in miniature, was a source of gratification to many persons who had evidently come to see him.
The exemplification of the best manner of saving a drowning man was very good, and we hope the time will not be far distant when the rescue of drowning persons will be taught in connection with most of, if not all our schools.
At present only about ten per cent of the male population can swim, and it is high time that this state of things was improved. Swimming is one of the purest, healthiest and most natural forms of recreation of which the human body is capable.
It is essentially connected with that all important virtue – cleanliness, and it may be the means of saving life. Le us hope then, that such entertainments as that at Rudyard yesterday may not only be the means of affording a day of innocent recreation to a large number of people, but may give a healthy stimulus to the art of swimming.”
Webb went on to write a book, titled ‘The Art of Swimming’ and continued to take part in exhibition swimming matches and stunts.
Just six years after his appearance at Rudyard in 1883, he drowned while attempting to cross the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls. A memorial in his home town of Shropshire, reads “Nothing great is easy”.
He was inducted the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965.
Written by Alan Weeks / Dave Perry.