IF you’ve seen the Oscar nominated blockbuster biopic ‘Nyad’, you’ll lap up the true story of Essex’s swimming superstar who never gave up on his dream to swim the English Channel even when he was almost hacked to pieces by a fishing boat….

MOVIE fans will be aware of the film, Nyad, which tells the true story of Diana Nyad’s attempts in the early 2010s to swim the Straits of Florida- a feat she eventually achieves at the age of 64.

The film, which saw Annette Bening in the title role nominated in the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards last month, as well as Jodie Foster for best supporting actress, focuses on the highs and lows of long-distance swimming with a message of never giving up, no matter how long it takes to achieve your dreams.

Almost a century ago Essex was celebrating its own long distance swimming icon and his name was Norman Leslie Derham.

In 1926 Derham made headlines across the world after he swam the English Channel in 13 hours and 57 minutes - a new record for an Englishman. However, it hadn’t been all plain sailing for the 27-year-old father-of-two, who lived in York Road, Southend, and was a member of the Southend Swimming Club.

Great British Life: Norman being slathered in greaseNorman being slathered in grease (Image: From the Sam Rockett collection on the website ChannelSwimmingDover.com)

After swimming the channel, he became an overnight star. Everywhere he went, crowds of supporters surrounded him. What’s more, the feat earned him a hefty cash prize of £1,000. But the path to his success had been paved with many setbacks and in the end, it was his sheer stubbornness to carry on that saw him through.

Derham swam overnight from Cap Gris-nez- the closest part of France to England- before arriving at St Margaret’s Bay by the white cliffs of Dover, shortly before 11am. The distance is 21 miles, but the tide can often make the actual swim a lot further.

When he made the successful attempt in September of 1926, Derham became only the 10th person to conquer the channel and only the third Englishman. He’d made two similar attempts earlier in the same year but had to abandon them due to freezing temperatures.

On one of these tries he got within two miles of the English coast but had to call off his quest. Derham’s achievement caused a media frenzy because the News of the World newspaper had offered a £1,000 prize to any English man or woman who could swim the channel and beat the time set by Gertrude Ederle.

Just weeks earlier Ederle, an American teenager, had become the first woman to swim the channel. The remarkable 19-year-old did it slathered in grease and wearing a controversial two-piece bathing costume.

Great British Life: Rowing boat at St Margaret’s Bay – this was the only support Norman had on his Channel attemptsRowing boat at St Margaret’s Bay – this was the only support Norman had on his Channel attempts (Image: Newsquest)

She made the swim in 14-and-a-half hours, smashing all the previous men’s records. Norman Derham was determined to take up the mantle and win the News of the World prize which, in those days, was more than enough to buy a house. In the end, he beat Ederle’s record by 35 minutes.

Like all channel swimmers, Derham had to cope with irritants such as icy waters, cramp and fog. At one point he was almost run down by a fishing boat and at other times he was practically helpless to continue - but he refused to give up.

For the first part of the way he did the breaststroke but when he was within a mile of the shore at St Margaret’s Bay he turned on his back and swam with his face up to the sky.

When he caught sight of the beach and of people cheering him on, he tore off his goggles and yelled, “I am going to get there.” Crowds of people had gathered on the beach to welcome Derham home and as he stepped onto the shore just before 11am, one of the well-wishers unfurled a huge Union Flag.

Derham’s first request was for a cigarette and upon getting his breath back, he said: “This is my third attempt to swim the Channel and it has been most unpleasant. Fog nearly beat me. Neither my companions in the boats nor I knew early this morning which way we were going.

“It was the grandest moment of my life when I felt my feet on the pebbles and heard the roar of welcome on the shore.”

Derham said he was not done with the channel and pledged to swim it again - this time going from England to France. The victory by Derham made him a hero even in the eyes of his wife, Ada. “The most surprised woman will be my wife,” he said after the swim. “She did not believe for a moment that there was anything serious in my attempt and treated it as a joke. Now it is my time to smile.”

During his training Derham had swum the estuary, from Kent to Southend. It hadn’t always gone to plan. During one attempt to cross the estuary he had an usual encounter several miles from the shore: “A large porpoise rose to the surface beneath me, lifting me completely out of the water!” he explained.

Great British Life: Norman Derham arrives in Southend after his triumphant English Channel swimNorman Derham arrives in Southend after his triumphant English Channel swim (Image: Newsquest)

Derham was well known and liked in Southend and had lived in the town for several years. He was born on the Isle of Wight but moved to Southend in 1921 after the First World War to take up a job looking after the municipal baths.

He soon hit his stride as a member of the Southend Swimming Club, which had been formed in 1894, and specialised in swimming to the pierhead, and then back again along the other side.

By the time of the swim, Derham had his own business and was partner in a mattress manufacturing company in Woolwich. company in Woolwich. When he arrived back in his hometown following his victory, he was met off the train by crowds of people.

He was then given a civic reception where he was greeted by the mayor of Southend. Derham was also honoured at the Cliff Town Church, where he regularly worshipped.

When attending a football match at the Kursaal between Southend and Aberdare Athletic, he was giving a standing ovation and ‘chaired’ on the shoulders of spectators around the touch line. Players, linesmen and the referee all joined in the cheering before Derham waved encouragingly to Billy Hick (the Southend centre forward) before he kicked off play.

Although he never did swim the channel in the other direction, Derham went on to keep his passion for adventure. In 1928 he entered the Wrigley Marathon swim, a gruelling 20-mile open water swim in America with a cash prize of $25,000. He didn’t win this time.

Great British Life: A newspaper announcement of his achievementA newspaper announcement of his achievement (Image: Newsquest)

In 1929 he was in huge demand as a swim coach. In 1929 he was in huge demand as a swim coach. In this year he coached Eva Coleman, who was fast making a name for herself in Southend as an outstanding female swimmer.

Derham helped Mrs Coleman train for her victorious swim in 1930 when she became the first woman to swim the Thames Estuary. She did it in three hours and 32 minutes and swam from Gantlet Creek to Westcliff. She then decided to train to swim the English Channel. In 1930 Derham wrote a letter to Knut Johannson, a Scandinavian man who was planning to cross the Atlantic in a speed boat, to offer himself a a mate but it appears this attempt never took place.

In 1946 Norman Derham died suddenly. By this time he was living in Southall. He was only 47. As for his student, Eva Coleman, she was blighted by heartache during her channel swim training when her husband died in a brutal motorcycle accident in Prittlewell.

Nevertheless by 1933 she was ready to make the attempt. Part of her training schedule saw her walk five miles a day around Southend’s parks. Alas, Mrs Coleman got within four miles of the English coast during her channel swim attempt and had to stop.

Like so many before and after her, she had the drive and the discipline to achieve the feat, but the elements were simply against her.

These days channel swimmers can make the crossing in seven hours or less. However, Norman Derham will be remembered as one of the greats from the golden age of channel swimming, where swimmers were accompanied by little more than a rowing boat and propelled by determination and true grit.