When Donegal restaurant owner Finbar Rock speaks about his aunt, the first British woman to swim the English Channel, you are transported. His admiration is audible but there is something else in his voice — perhaps a sense of incomprehension that an open-sea swimming pioneer and record-breaker fell through the cracks of history.
There were reasons for that. While his mother Phoebe often spoke about her sister-in-law Mercedes Gleitze, the woman herself never told her own children she was a world-renowned swimmer.
Maybe she found it painful to recall the staggering list of swimming records she set around the world in the 1920s and ’30s because, in the 1940s, she suffered an illness that cruelly left her bedridden until her death in 1981.
We might never know but the woman herself, who married into the Dublin Carey family in 1930, is happily returning slowly to the public consciousness.
Earlier this year, a blue plaque commemorating her record-breaking swims, including many around Ireland, was unveiled at her birthplace in Brighton.
Closer to home, artist and sea swimmer, Vanessa Daws, created an “aquatic homage” to her in Galway in June, commemorating her 20-mile swim from Inis Meáin to Awleen Bay on August 3, 1931. She was the first to do so and she did it in a time of 19 hours.
Vindication Swim, a film due for release starring Kirsten Callaghan, tells the story of how, in 1927, Mercedes set off across the English Channel for a second time because her account of her first successful crossing was disbelieved.
Another woman claimed to have crossed the Channel in the same week as Mercedes and in a faster time. Her claim was later disproved but Mercedes, meantime, had agreed to undertake a ‘vindication swim’ to prove her own achievement. The weather had changed yet she set out into colder, choppier waters equipped with nothing more than a swimsuit, a bathing cap, and a smattering of goose fat.
While she had to abandon her attempt close to her final destination, her resilience and remarkable endurance of the cold convinced the general public of the veracity of her original claim.
The release of the film will certainly raise the profile of another forgotten female pioneer but the most personal, and as a consequence moving, tribute to this singular women is on the newly opened first-floor restaurant at Simple Simon’s health food shop in Donegal town. Its owner Finbar Rock was inspired to celebrate not only his aunt but the many women who found new confidence and a sense of community by braving the waves as Covid locked us down.
“All my childhood I heard stories of Mercedes and her swimming exploits,” he says.
Little did I appreciate just how celebrated and outstanding a role model she was.
She was, in his mother’s words, “a thoroughly modern lady” who achieved many firsts, in an era of firsts. He goes on to list just some of them: “She held many swimming records around the world; the first British woman to swim the Channel in 1927; the first person to swim the Straits of Gibraltar; swimming the 100 miles around the Isle of Man; Cape Town to Robben Island and back; and [she set] many records in New Zealand and Australia.
“She completed many record-breaking swims in Ireland; in Lough Neagh, across the Foyle from Greencastle to Portstewart, and the return. She carried out tremendous feats, establishing endurance records for swimming, including a record of 46 hours in 1932.”
She did all of this at a time when there were no wetsuits, sophisticated navigation, or accurate tidal information.
She was also the first sportsperson to be sponsored by Hans Wilsdorf and she wore his new brand, the first waterproof Rolex watch (the Oyster Perpetual) when she swam the English Channel a second time.
On the 30th anniversary of the release of its famous waterproof watch, Rolex trumpeted that its product had made immense progress since it was first worn by Mercedes. Alongside an image of the famous swimmer, one advert in 1956 said: “The Oyster has come a long way since Mercedes Gleitze made world headlines in 1927 by swimming the English Channel with an Oyster on her wrist. Since then Rolex Oyster watches have equipped expeditions to the highest mountains, including the Everest expedition of 1953. They have journeyed over torrid deserts, through steaming jungles, in Arctic snows.”
The company’s endorsement of Mercedes Gleitze’s English Channel swim is a fascinating study in product placement and sponsorship in sport. Indeed, the way her image was used to endorse other products — from bathing caps to tea — illustrates the emergence of women as consumers in the early years of the 20th century.
It also reveals that there is nothing new in the idea that you can become, or aspire to become, the person that uses the product. In the 1920s, the tagline “Miss Gleitze Beat the Channel on Lipton’s Tea” suggested that you might be able to do likewise if you drank it. Others, such as the ad for Reliance bathing caps, stressed the feminine: “Save Your Waves from the Waves!” ran the jingle.
On an aside, Mercedes was also endorsed by Paddy whiskey, which was perhaps an effort to appeal to male consumers, as Dr Ciara Chambers notes in an excellent piece titled, “An Advertiser’s Dream: The Construction of the ‘Consumptionist’ Cinematic Persona of Mercedes Gleitze” .
“She was one of a list of swimmers that appeared in an advert for Paddy whiskey that called for a toast to those who had successfully swam the channel: “Let’s toast them in the right spirit — Pass the ‘Paddy’,” she writes.
Mercedes Gleitze was feted in the UK, but she was also a big star in Ireland and attracted large crowds when she set two swimming endurance records at the Tara Street Baths in Dublin in February (28 hours) and November (42 hours) in 1930.
The Irish Independent wrote: “There were 3,607 [what a precise count] spectators at the event, and even at midnight, especially on the second night, a dense throng was present. Community singing took place throughout, and on Monday evening an impromptu concert was given by a group of singers and instrumentalists, including Davy Lee and Chris Sylvester on accordions.”
The press followed the “daughter of Neptune” closely, reporting on her personal life, her swimming endeavours and her work for charity. In 1928, she set up the Mercedes Gleitze Homes for Destitute Men and Women, an organisation that, for many years, helped homeless families.
Her nephew mentions that fact too but his impromptu exhibition, ‘Wimin Swimmin’, as its name suggests, focuses on the sea. He says: “These past few Covid years have seen women taking to open-sea swimming in great numbers, as an expression of solidarity and empowerment, promoting mental health and self-esteem, as well as boosting the immune system.
“Here’s to all brave women who brave the waves.”
On this, the last day of the meteorological summer, so say all of us.