Wild people: swimming legend Mercedes Gleitze

In 1927, Brighton-born Mercedes Gleitze became the first British woman to swim the English Channel – and a star was born 

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Wedding afternoons are traditionally a time for dancing and too much champagne. 

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But Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the Channel, had other plans, announcing she was leaving that day for Turkey to swim the Hellespont, the four mile strait separating Europe from Asia.

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British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze (1900 – 1979) after her successful attempt to become the first woman to swim the Straits of Gibraltar, 6th April 1928. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“I hope to win for England this additional swimming honour,” she told reporters being jostled by the crowd who had come to see her tie the knot to Patrick Carey – aptly enough, in Dover. 

Making waves

Born in Brighton to German parents in 1900, Gleitze was taught to swim by her father and developed a lifelong obsession with the sport.

Matthew Webb had been the first person to swim the Channel in 1875, but in the 1920s Channel swimmers became famous, thanks to the multiple crossing attempts being made by British and American swimming stars.

When Gleitze moved to London to work as a stenographer, she started to dream of swimming the Channel and spent her spare time training in the Thames, completing a 27-mile swim in the river in 1923. It was the beginning of a record-breaking decade for her.

The 21-mile Channel swim is extremely challenging, with jellyfish, bitterly cold water and tides that can pull you away just as the end is in sight. 

Gleitze was desperate to be the first woman to reach France, but American Gertrude Ederle beat her to it in August 1926. Undeterred, Gleitze continued training, swimming 120 miles along the Thames over 11 days in July 1927. 

That October, her eighth attempt at the Channel, Gleitze left Cap Gris Nez, France at 3am in thick fog with a fishing boat to protect her from shipping traffic. Her trainer fed her grapes, tea, honey and cocoa en route and, 15 hours after setting off, Gleitze collapsed, victorious, on the shore in England.

Her achievement made international headlines, but when another woman falsely claimed she had also completed the crossing just days later, the now suspicious English Channel Swimming Association refused to recognise Gleitze’s success. Deeply upset by the accusations of cheating, Gleitze agreed to a new attempt, dubbed the ‘Vindication Swim’. Returning to a much colder Channel two weeks later, Gleitze failed to complete the crossing this time but the 10 hours she spent in the water convinced the doubters and her original achievement was upheld.

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Swimmer Mercedes Gleitze has a drink during her unsuccessful attempt to swim the English Channel, 21st October 1927. She abandoned her attempt 8 miles from Dover after suffering the effects of extreme cold. Earlier in the month Gleitze had made a successful crossing to become the first British woman to swim the Channel. (Photo by E. Bacon/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Vindication Swim put the 26-year-old on the map. Her plans had caught the attention of Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, who gave Gleitze a waterproof Rolex Oyster to wear on the crossing in exchange for a testimonial if it survived. Sure enough, the watch kept perfect time and Gleitze appeared in a full-page advert in the Daily Mail. Further sponsorship deals followed.

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British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze (1900 – 1979) in the water, watched by witnesses and spectators in accompanying boats, shortly before she was forced to abandon her ‘vindication’ swim across the English Channel after suffering from extreme cold, eight miles from Dover, 21st October 1927. Photo by E. Bacon/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Water star 

The Channel was the first of many famous crossings for Gleitze. She was the first person to swim the eight-mile Strait of Gibraltar; she completed the Hellespont in under three hours, and crossed Sydney Harbour and Wellington Harbour in New Zealand. While four months pregnant, she became the first person to swim from Cape Town to Robben Island and back, in freezing waters notorious for great white sharks. Gleitze also set one of her final endurance records on the same tour in South Africa, swimming for 46 hours, entertained by singing spectators and enjoying cups of tea. 

Retiring after returning to the UK, Gleitze went on to have three children. Moved by the plight of the homeless, she used much of her earnings to open the Mercedes Gleitze Home for Destitute Men and Women in Leicester in 1933, and the charity still exists today. In 1969 she was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

Gleitze died on 9 February, 1981. In 2010, a Rolex advert featured a woman swimming the channel, wearing the Oyster. Three years later Gleitze was finally recognised by the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honour Open Water Pioneer Swimmer.

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Main image: British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze (1900 – 1979) during her successful attempt to become the first woman to swim the Straits of Gibraltar, 6th April 1928. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)