black and white portrait photo of a lady in a swimsuitThis year, to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, I’m acknowledging a woman with an indomitable spirit who dared to dream beyond the confines of her era: Brighton-born Mercedes Glietze. She made history as the first British female to swim the English Channel and became a household name. In the process, she also helped make luxury watch brand Rolex, famous.

Hers is a story of triumph against the patriarchal norms of the 1920s, but also one with a twist, that involves a hoaxing scandal and a second swim, which inspired a film released on IWD called Vindication Swim, written and directed by 23-year-old Elliot Hassler from my hometown of Brighton, I want to cheer on.

The story of Mercedes Glietze

Her first successful swim took place on a foggy, brisk October morning in 1927. Smothered in lard, wearing just a swimsuit – wetsuits didn’t exist in those days – and a hat, she set off from Cap Gris-Nez in France to Kent in England. Fifteen hours and 15 minutes later, she had made history as the first British woman to swim the English Channel, propelling her from humble working-class typist into the most iconic sportswomen of her age – temporarily.

Born in 1900, she was the youngest of three daughters of German immigrant parents in Brighton. She could speak several languages and moved to London in 1922 to work as a secretary and stenographer. Open-water swimming had always been her passion; in her spare time, she would swim in the River Thames with special permission from the Port of London Authority. Over time, her swims drew large crowds of spectators.

Her journey to superstar swimmer didn’t happen overnight. It was a trial of strength and perseverance that took eight attempts. Each is documented in detail through a collection of archived newspaper stories in this fascinating story on the British Newspaper Archive blog. 

Mercedes Glietze’s Vindication swim

When she finally succeeded, she collected a cash prize offered by a newspaper to the female who had been the first. At the same time, however, another British woman, Dr Logan, claimed to have completed the task two hours faster and wanted some of the money. Even though it proved a hoax, it cast doubt on Mercedes’ abilities and sparked a patriarchal media attack.

A week after the first swim, Gleitze undertook a second swim to vindicate her reputation. Flanked by boatloads of pressmen witnesses, although she couldn’t complete it due to icy conditions, it restored her credibility. Finally, on 15 October 1927, Mercedes Gleitze was acknowledged as the first British woman to swim the English Channel.

© Glietze archives

Her thirst for open-water swimming didn’t stop there. In 1927, after six attempts, she became the first woman to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. A year later, she worked at Tower Circus, Blackpool, demonstrating how she carried out her long-distance swims. She also attempted, but failed, to swim the Irish Sea.

In August 1930, she married Patrick Carey at St Paul’s Roman Catholic church in Dover. Instead of a honeymoon, they went to North Africa so she could swim the Hellespont in Istanbul. She continued to set new endurance records, swam from Robben Island to Table Bay in Cape Town, and, after one more attempt at swimming the English Channel eventually retired. In 1934, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, and later two more children, Doloranda and Fergus.

Mercedes Glietze’s legacy

Alongside her swimming accolades, Mercedes’ legacy lives on in the form of the Rolex Oyster, the brand’s first and most famous waterproof wristwatch. For many years, it advertised the product using Mercedes Gleitze’s achievements.

She also started a charity, today linked to Family Action, opening the Mercedes Gleitze Home in Leicester in 1933 for destitute families. She founded several more Gleitze Homes, some of which housed homeless Czech families in 1939.

Vindication Swim: the movie

Written and directed by Brighton-born and bred 23-year-old Elliot Hassler, Vindication Swim, reflects Mercedes Gleitze’s upstream struggle to overcome both the cold waters of the English Channel and the oppressive society of the 1920s. It stars Brighton-based Kirsten Callaghan in her debut role as Mercedes Gleitze, who trained for months in the English Channel before filming began. It hits cinemas on 8 March 2024. Watch the trailer below.

Further research

Her daughter Doloranda Pember’s book, In the Wake of Mercedes Glietz: Open Water Swimming Pioneer, is interesting. The British Pathe archive has several film clips on Mercedes’ various swim attempts:  this one documents her second attempt, this news clip shows one failing one attempt, getting married in Dover and this one full of outtakes showing her swimming.

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