Remembering the first British woman to swim the English Channel

Mercedes GleitzeMercedes Gleitze
Mercedes Gleitze
A new exhibition by Dublin-based artist Vanessa Daws – At Home in the Water – will tell the history of sea swimming in Brighton, alongside the story of Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1981), who is the artist’s inspiration for the new artwork. The exhibition runs until November 27 at Fabrica, Brighton.

Born in Brighton in 1900, Mercedes was the first Englishwoman to swim the Channel in 1927 and was a huge celebrity in her day, lauded for her record-breaking endurance swims. Spokeswoman Nicola Jeffs said: “With the recent revival of public interest in sea swimming and its health benefits, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, this has reinvigorated interest in the swimmer and her achievements. In January 2022, a blue plaque was unveiled at Mercedes’ place of birth at 124 Freshfield Road, Brighton to a large and appreciative crowd of sea swimmers and other supporters.

“At Home in the Water at Fabrica is one element of an international ongoing project called Swimming a Long Way Together, a multi-sited three-year arts project produced by Vanessa Daws and curator Rosie Hermon. The project follows and celebrates Mercedes Gleitze’s notable endurance swims in Ireland, Northern Ireland and England, connecting with local swimming groups along the way and raising awareness of Mercedes’ sporting achievements with each event.

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“Mercedes Gleitze undertook many challenging and pioneering swims in the 1920s and 30s, in Ireland, Britain and beyond. She was the first British woman to swim the English Channel and the first person to swim the Strait of Gibraltar. She also completed record-breaking endurance swims of up to 47 hours in public swimming pools. From humble origins Mercedes became a celebrity through her swimming achievements, with huge audiences assembling to cheer her on or to greet her whenever she emerged from the water.

“Music played a central role in her swims as an accompaniment and support, often helping to create a festive atmosphere on the pool deck and raise her spirits as she swam vast stretches of open water.

“Swimming a Long Way Together has emerged as a project from Vanessa Daws’ own long distance swims, which include the 22km length of Lough Mask in County Galway. It was during Vanessa’s preparations to attempt to swim the English Channel in 2019 that she first came across the fascinating history of Mercedes. Vanessa’s art practice sits at the intersection of art, swimming and place and the conversations connected to that, as well as the sensation of being in open water. These first hand swimming experiences are always the starting point for her projects.”

Vanessa said: “When passing a body of water, be it pond, lake, river or sea, it’s hard for me not to resist the urge to take a swim. My work investigates where this drive to swim long distance comes from, the desire to keep on swimming for hours.”