Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Challenge of the Channel

With the growth of leisure time in the later years of Victoria's reign, the variety of sports, both for participants and spectators, grew rapidly.  Men and women competed against time, the elements and one-another. The greatest challenges, and those which had the greatest appeal to the public, were almost always against nature. Although mountains and rivers were conquered, the Channel remained. It offered a special challenge. It was, after all, what divided England from the European continent and was, to use William Shakespeare's image, part of "a moat defensive to a house/Against the envy of less happier lands." England was, to Victorians as to Elizabethans,

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, 
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, 
This other Eden, demi-paradise, 
This fortress built by Nature for herself 
Against infection and the hand of war, 
This happy breed of men, this little world, 
This precious stone set in the silver sea, 
Which serves it in the office of a wall 
Or as a moat defensive to a house, 
Against the envy of less happier lands,-- 

                              William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act 2 scene 1

The English Channel had always been part of the great defensive net around England and while it was regularly crossed by boat, experience had shown that it was a bulwark against invasion. But by the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was becoming easier to cross.  

The first balloon passage had taken place in January of 1785 when  Jean-Pierre Blanchard, with the American, Dr. John  Jeffries, navigated from England to France in about 2½ hours.
The First Channel Flight
In 1815, the √Člise made the first steamship crossing in a harrowing seventeen hour trip.  
The √Člise
But it was not until 1872 that the first recorded attempt to swim the English Channel took place.  The swimmer, J B Johnson, lasted for only three minutes more than an hour before abandoning the effort.  

Johnson was a professional swimmer based in Leeds who came to prominence in 1871 when he won the swimming championship at the Welsh Harp Lake at Hendon in front of a crowd of three or four hindred spectators and in the teeth of a driving hailstorm. The Times described him, at the time, as "undoubtedly the best swimmer [in] England." Johnson had already attracted some interest and attention in the press when, a few days earlier, he had leapt from London Bridge apparently to rescue a gentleman who had fallen from a Thames Steamer. Later, however, it was established that it was a "performance." According to The Badminton Library volume on Swimming, this 
afterwards turned out to be a mere exhibition. Johnson dived to rescue a drowning person, the said 'drowning person' being his brother Peter, who was nearly as good a swimmer as the famous J. B., and a capital stayer under water.
In August of the following year, Johnson attempted to swim the English Channel.  Initially, many thought this was nothing more than another hoax, but it soon became clear that this was to be a serious attempt.  Johnson, of course, clearly realised the value of publicity and a few days before his attempt had posted placards around Dover from where the swim was to originate. The placards announced that the "hero of London-bridge and champion swimmer of the world" would swim from England to France.  It is interesting that even though his London Bridge escapade had been exposed for what it really was, he was still able to play on his "heroic" rescue. Swimming the Channel was a different matter.  Such a feat was generally deemed to be impossible, although there were stories of three escaped French political prisoners attempting to swim to England.  Two were supposed to have completed the swim, one of whom died almost immediately thereafter while the other survived and lived in Dover for a number of years.  But the attempt by Johnson was not to be one of rumour or half-truth; it would be thoroughly documented. 

At the time, Johnson was twenty-four years old and a superb physical specimen as well as being captain of the prestigious Serpentine (swimming) Club in London.

Johnson's attempt came about as the result of a bet placed in Leeds, his home town, at odds of 1000 pounds to 30 pounds, a wager which was quickly doubled. Having already made his mark as a swimmer, he must have realised that a successful crossing of the Channel would raise him even further in the eyes of both the public and the swimming fraternity. Always aware of the power of publicity, in addition to the placards which had been placed around Dover, Johnson hired the brass band of the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens to play at the start of his swim. A steamer, the Palmerston, was engaged to accompany him and the great event was scheduled for Friday, 23 August. Thousands of spectators had gathered at Admiralty Pier in Dover to see the swimmer off, but the tide was such as to necessitate a delay until the following day. However,Johnson and his brother more than mollified the crowd with a performance of "aquatic feats for more than an hour."

The following day started with the band marching from the Harp Hotel and leading Johnson to the pier.  The hero of the hour followed along wearing thirty decorations described by the correspondent for The Times as "mementos of former conquests." Cheered by a crowd of thousands, Johnson dove into the water from the steamer Palmerston's paddlebox at 10:40 am. 
Johnson enters the water
After an hour, however, it became clear he would be unable to go on.  He took some port wine at 11:20 and again at 11:30 while still in the water, but by 11:45 he was out of the water and on the deck of the steamer.

According to The Times, when he was pulled aboard, his legs were numb from the thighs down and he was suffering from hypothermia to such a degree he was even unable to drink some of the beef-tea which was proffered. Nonetheless, always the showman, when the Palmerston arrived at Calais at 3:00 pm, he, and his brother who was accompanying him, 
dived into the water, one from each side of the boat, and delighted the spectators anxiously awaiting his arrival with various specimens of aquatic skill.
While perhaps not achieving the fame he sought, Johnson certainly was the subject of much adulation.  Despite his failed attempt at the Channel, a popular song, I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson, was soon being heard.  

The other day he tried to swim,
To Calais right from Dover,
The task seem'd easy unto him.
When seven miles were over,
Right through the sea, he seem'd to fly,
He stop'd, tho' not through failure,
When I can swim, you'll see I'll try,
To go right to Australia.

Two of the verses refer to his feat at London Bridge and his failed attempt on the Channel, neither of which seemed to, in any way, lower his popular appeal.  But it was not until three years later that the English Channel was finally conquered, not by J. B. Johnson, but by Captain Matthew Webb.

To see the songsheet for "I wish that I could swim like J. B. Johnson," click here.