Monday, 16 November 2009

Channel Icons

Here's another Channel mermaid - Ethel 'Sunny' Lowry (1911-2008) - who swam the Channel in 1933 when she was 22 years old. It was her third go, having been thwarted by storms and tides on her first two attempts. She swam from Cap Gris Nez in France to St. Margaret's Bay, Dover and completed in 15 hours 41 minutes. Born and raised in Manchester, she was a cousin of the artist LS Lowry. She swam at the Victoria Baths in Manchester and was an ardent champion of the baths which were closed in 1993. In 2003 they featured on the BBC TV programme 'Restoration'. From a selection of buildings facing dereliction, the baths were voted by the British public to be most deserving of a £3 million grant to set them on the road to restoration and recovery. More about them later.  
But here's a little mystery which I can't seem to solve. As a Mancunian, I like the fact that Sunny made her mark on the Channel, for women and for Manchester. She is frequently referred to as the first British woman to swim the Channel. Yet where does the woman in this photograph fit in the English Channel picture? 
She is Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1981), a London typist. She is also referred to as the first English woman to swim the channel. On her eighth attempt, she swam from Cap Gris Nez to St Margaret's Bay on 7 October 1927 - six years before Sunny's attempt - and completed in 15 hours 15 minutes. Shortly afterwards, another woman - Mona McLennan - made the crossing, but it later emerged that Mona's swim was a hoax. Then the legitimacy of Mercedes' record was also called into question. She was greatly upset by the slur and made an attempt to clear up any doubts with a 'vindication swim' on 21 October. She wore a Rolex 'Oyster' watch around her neck. It kept time beautifully, and Rolex used Mercedes' endorsement to publicise their name, but unfortunately for Mercedes, the sea conditions were so brutal that her attempt failed. Her successful crossing is listed in the records of the Cross Channel Association, so I'm puzzled as to how all the pieces of Sunny's and Mercedes' stories fit together. Great women, great swimmers, both of them, whatever the details may be.

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