B is for Thomas Burgess

This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.
Thomas William Burgess

Thomas William Burgess

It is a truism of sport that no-one remembers who came in second which is sad because sometimes the achievement of the runner-up can be as impressive as that of the winner.

One such was Thomas William Burgess who was the second person to swim the English Channel, or La Manche if you happen to be French. What is remarkable was that he came second fully 36 years after Captain Matthew Webb. first achieved the feat in 1875.

Burgess was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, in 1872, the son of a blacksmith. His father worked for the Earl of Shrewsbury, one of whose business interests was a hansom cab company and the family moved around 1882 when Burgess senior accepted the Earl’s offer to run a branch of the business in London.

Burgess in the Channel

Burgess in the Channel

Burgess junior had learned to swim as a boy, but it was while in London that he began to practice seriously to increase his speed in open water when he joined a club swimming along the Thames to Battersea.

He also joined Shewsbury & Talbot where he specialised in tyres for the hansom cabs and as a result the Earl offered him a position in Paris in the French branch of his motor tyre business.

It was in France that Burgess began serious sea swimming when he joined a group of sportsmen and journalists for a dip in the Channel from a tug boat and it was this that sparked his ambition to emulate Captain Webb.

Burgess' CourseSwimming the Channel is no simple task which is why no-one else had managed it for so long and Burgess himself had sixteen failed attempts before he finally succeeded.

Burgess entered the water near the South Foreland Lighthouse, in St. Margaret’s Bay, Dover at 11.15am 6th September 1911 and landed at Cape Grisnez over twenty-two hours later. You can see from the cutting above that he took a rather erratic course and swam much further than Webb had done.

As well as receiving a telegram from the King George V at Balmoral, Thomas received many more telegrams of congratulation including one from Matthew Webb, the son of Captain Webb.

Newspaper adThe only performance enhancing products that Burgess had used during his swim were the snacks of grapes, a chicken leg. half a cup of tea made with Nestlé’s Swiss Milk and lots of Nestlé chocolate.

As you can see from his sworn statement, product endorsement was alive and well even then, but at least he didn’t stoop to using meat extract!

Burgess had married Anne Rosalie Mioux in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, Paris, in 1893 and operated a motor business in Levallois-Perret, but in the 1920s he bought a summer home at Cap Gris Nez near Calais as a summer base to train channel swimmers, including the American gold medallist and world record holder, Gertrude Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the Channel.

He continued to live in Paris and in 1941 it was reported by the newspapers that had been taken prisoner by the Nazis and held in a prison camp Stalag 142 in Bascanon, France. He was released later the same year.

Thomas Burgess Bronze bustBurgess died in Paris in 1950 and his achievement was celebrated in a bronze bust that had pride of place at Sheffield Road swimming baths in Rotherham and local children would rub its nose for luck.

The building has since been demolished and from July 2010, the bust has been on display at Clifton Park Museum as part of the Rotherham Sporting Greats – an exhibition celebrating the achievements of local sporting heroes.

You can read Burgess’s account of his Channel swim here.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • Carver 22nd January 2014

    Great idea to feature Thomas Burgess this week. I didn’t realize that there was such a long period of time between the first and second person to swim the English Channel. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  • Roger Green 22nd January 2014

    Entertaining AND informative!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Chrissy Brand 22nd January 2014

    What an amazing feat, fascinating post.

  • a spirit of simplicity 22nd January 2014

    Very interesting. I can’t imagine even thinking about such a feat.

  • lesliebc 22nd January 2014

    Fascinating! I’m wondering why he took the route he took…did it have anything to do with tides or waves or what?

    abcw team

    • Mr Parrot 23rd January 2014

      Judging from his own account, it seems to have been a combination of weather conditions, too little lard protecting him from the cold and jellyfish and leaky goggles!


Your email will not be published on this site, but note that this and any other personal data you choose to share is stored here. Please see the Privacy Policy for more information.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: