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The Rise of Mercedes Gleitze

Mercedes Gleitze (1900 – 1981)

First British woman to swim the English Channel.

by Philip Morgan

“I passionately love the sea; nothing else moves me as it does. I love and understand its every mood; and I sometimes fancy that the sea knows and understands me, too.”

Mercedes was born in Brighton. Her parents, who lived at 124 Freshfield Road, were not well off, and as a child, she was sent twice to live with her grandparents in Germany for extended periods. When her father, a baker at the Metropole hotel and originally from Bavaria, was interned at the beginning of the First World War, her mother took her and her two sisters to Germany to be close to family.

Mercedes felt passionately that England was her home.

“On the 25 April 1918, on account of a terrible feeling of homesickness for England that I could not overcome, I decided to escape from Germany and attempt to get back to my native country.” So, at seventeen, she walked from Germany to Holland, hoping to talk her way into a free passage. When she couldn’t, she wasn’t discouraged; she decided to swim! “I had never attempted a task like this before, but I was confident that I would reach my ultimate goal. I plunged into the water fully dressed with the exception of my shoes and stockings.” She nearly drowned. “How long I was swimming, I do not know, but I kept on battling against the currents … and eventually the reigning tidal forces threw me onto the shores. My blood was frozen, my lips were blue and I was shivering.” Locals took her in on the Frisian island she had landed on. They contacted her mother, who came to take her back to Germany. Mercedes had a different idea, though. On the night of her mother’s arrival, Mercedes decided to have another go at swimming to England. “It was pitch dark… a storm broke ….there was thunder and lightning …The fury of the sea… increased to such an extent that I was compelled to turn round…but my direction was wrong and I had to continue swimming in seas that threatened to overwhelm me at any moment. At last utterly exhausted, I found myself back on the island and returned to the hotel.” (In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze, The History Press, 1st February 2019.)

“I will go south with you,” she said to her mother in the hotel, “but only if you will let me go to work.” Her mother agreed. Mercedes soon saved enough money to get to London, where her command of languages got her a well-paid job as a bilingual secretary. Then, very unusually for those times, she rented a flat on her own and settled into an independent life as a single young woman. But she felt unfulfilled. The sea called and would not be denied. She always felt she had the capacity to swim great distances, and it seems that her brushes with death had not discouraged her in the slightest and, if anything, had emboldened her even further. She decided the way forward for her was to become a professional long-distance sea swimmer. A second ambition was formed at this time: to help the homeless poor, whom she saw every day during her walks along the Embankment. She felt that if she became a successful athlete, she might be able to open a hostel for some of them, which she finally did in 1933 at 67 Sparkenhoe Street, Leicester.

Having come to these decisions, she set about making them happen with no financial backing apart from what she earned in her office job and any savings she might have accumulated.

Her first goal was to swim the English Channel for publicity and hopefully some prize money. She knew that to succeed, she had to fit regular open-water tidal swimming into her schedule. “Usually, I worked so hard at business that by evening, I was too tired even to go to the local swimming baths. But it occurred to me it would be a splendid thing to swim in the Thames every Sunday, and I applied to the Port of London authorities for permission to do so; I was granted a special permit and began my training at weekends.” (In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze, The History Press, 1st February 2019.)

These training sessions turned into events that gathered crowds. On 5 August 1923, Mercedes broke the British Ladies’ Record for Thames Swimming, covering 27 and a quarter miles in 10 hours and 45 minutes starting at Putney Bridge. This event and the subsequent publicity launched her career as a professional athlete. On 1 July 1927, she left her job to concentrate full-time on swimming. On 18 July, she started a 120-mile swim (in 10 stages) from London’s Westminster Bridge to Folkestone. “I had covered a few miles… when I approached three stationary barges …a strong current drew me towards the nearest barge and try as I might I was forced nearer and nearer…just as I seemed about to strike it the current sucked me below the water. I must have lost consciousness. The current carried me right under the barges and I was told later that when I came to the surface I bobbed up as if propelled by the current and started swimming automatically.” She finished the swim successfully on 29 July. Danger was never an obstacle. “When one loves, one is not afraid.”

From 1922, Mercedes had been attempting to swim the English Channel. She made seven unsuccessful attempts, often being forced against her will by her doctor to give up due to exhaustion and potential hypothermia. On one occasion, she was effectively lassoed and pulled out of the water while protesting that she wanted to continue. On the eighth try, she succeeded. On 7 October 1927, she left Cap Gris Nez at 2.55 am and came ashore between St Margaret’s Bay and the South Foreland at 6.10 pm. She was now an international celebrity whose swims would attract thousands.

She went on to achieve 18 open water swims. These included the Strait of Gibraltar 1928 – 12 hours, Firth of Forth 1929 – 11hrs 22mins, Hellespont (Dardanelles)1930 – 2 hours 55 mins, Galway Bay 1931 – 19 hours, Capetown to Robben Island 1932 – 9 hours 12 mins.

Mercedes had no private income or any major sponsor and had to raise money to cover her living costs and expenses. She did this in various ways, on one occasion taking a casual job in a cotton mill. Still, Mercedes raised most money by doing a series of endurance swims in swimming pools. The swimming pools charged an entrance fee which she took a percentage of. She did 27 of these swims across the UK, Eire, New Zealand and Australia. The average length of time per swim was 39 hours. They were immensely popular with both local dignitaries.

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And the public.

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Flashlight photograph taken after 11 p.m. of a section of the crowd of several thousands which failed to secure admission to Dundee Central Baths to see the concluding stage of Miss Gleitze’s swim. (Courtesy of the Dundee Courier, 26 Novemebr,26 Novemebr 1930)

She failed several open water swims, particularly the North Channel (Irish Sea); but, the determination she demonstrated during these attempts increased the admiration felt by the public.

“On one occasion I had been swimming for 14 hours 50 minutes … when my doctor gave orders that I should be taken out. I was not ‘finished’. Far from it. I wished to continue my swim and struggled vigorously with the doctor and two fishermen, who seized my arms to lift me out, until overpowered. They carried me to the cabin where I lay for at least an hour in a semi-conscious condition, just moaning with the pain caused by the returning circulation. My doctor and lady attendants who had spent the time dipping towels into boiling water and wrapping them round my limbs and shoulder to make me warm, were getting desperate, and I heard the doctor’s appealingly shout, ‘Miss Gleitze, speak to us, speak to us, you are not swimming now, it is all over.’ But I was still too paralysed to talk.” (In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze, The History Press, 1st February 2019.)

It was not always that challenging.

“It was a scene like a page from a fairy tale book which nothing can ever efface from my mind. Pitch darkness – to the left and the right of me, in fact all around me, the flickering, star-like lights of the 50 rowing boats, just darkness and twinkling lights…” (In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze, The History Press, 1st February 2019.)

Mercedes’ last public swimming event was in August 1933. In 1934, she moved with her husband Patrick into a modest three-bedroomed house in the London suburb of Kingsbury, where she spent the rest of her life. To quote her daughter Doloranda Pember, “Mercedes transition from a high profile celebrity into a mother and housewife was absolute. She deliberately closed the door on her ten-year love affair with the sea. She never swam again – except, perhaps, during quiet moments in her musings.” (In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze, The History Press, 1st February 2019.)

“Sea swimming is a beautiful thing in fact an art whose mistress should not be the few, for does not the sea and its dangers cross the paths of thousands? Nay, millions! What could possibly speak more for man’s prowess as an athlete than the ability to master Earth’s most powerful element – water, no matter what its mood.” Mercedes Gleitze, Diary of New Zealand Tour 1931.

With thanks to Doloranda Pember’s biography “In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze.” Images courtesy of “The Northern Whig & Belfast Post (1928)/Gleitze archives”.

Posted in History on Jun 01, 2024