Matthew Webb was born at Dawley in Shropshire, one of twelve children of a Coalbrookdale doctor. He learned to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. In 1860 at the age of twelve he joined the training ship HMS Conway for two years then entered the merchant navy and served a three-year apprenticeship with Rathbone Brothers of Liverpool.
Whilst serving as second mate on the Cunard Line ship Russia, traveling from New York to Liverpool, he attempted to rescue a man overboard by diving into the sea in the mid-Atlantic. The man was never found, but Webb’s daring won him an award of £100 and the Stanhope Medal, and made him a hero of the British press.
In the summer of 1863, while at home, he rescued his 12-year-old brother Thomas from drowning in the Severn near Ironbridge.
In 1873, Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald when he read an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson to swim the English Channel. He became inspired to try himself, and left his job to begin training, first at Lambeth Baths, then in the cold waters of the Thames, the English Channel and Hollingworth Lake.
On 12 August 1875, he made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim. On 24 August, he began a second swim by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Backed by three escort boats and smeared in porpoise oil, he set off into the ebb tide at a steady breaststroke. Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents off Cap Gris Nez which prevented him from reaching the shore for five hours, finally, after 21 hours and 45 minutes, he landed near Calais — the first successful cross-channel swim. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles (64 km) long.
After his record swim, Captain Webb basked in national and international adulation and followed a career as a professional swimmer. He licensed his name for merchandising such as commemorative pottery, and wrote a book called The Art of Swimming. A brand of matches was named after him. He participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours.
His final stunt was to be a dangerous swim through the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls, a feat many observers considered suicidal. Although Webb failed in an attempt at raising interest in funding the event, on 24 July 1883, he jumped into the river from a small boat located near the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge and began his swim. Accounts of the time indicate that in all likelihood Webb successfully survived the first part of the swim, but died in the section of the river located near the entrance to the whirlpool. Webb was interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York.
In 1909, Webb’s elder brother Thomas unveiled a memorial in Dawley. On it reads the short inscription: “Nothing great is easy.” The memorial was taken away for repair after a lorry collided with it in February 2009. The landmark memorial was returned after full restoration and was hoisted back onto its plinth in High Street in October 2009. A road (Webb Crescent) and Captain Webb School, both in Dawley, are named after the swimmer. A memorial plaque with his portrait was also unveiled in the parish church at Coalbrookdale. Webb House of the Adams’ Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire, is named after Webb