Kingsdown resident, Julian Dalrymple, tells the story of a record-breaking swim and explains why he had to see Gertrude Ederle – the remarkable woman who achieved it – at long last commemorated on the village’s beach

Nearly 100 years ago Gertrude Caroline Ederle – "Gertie"- to her family and friends - became the first-ever woman to swim the English Channel. Although her story has been well documented, having received extensive media coverage across the globe, she’s not exactly a household name. The film Young Woman and the Sea, starring Daisy Ridley, produced by the Disney channel and due to be released this year, should go some way towards changing that as far as this generation is concerned. She’s certainly well known to us here in Kingsdown, though – and I’ve been determined to see her amazing feat commemorated here in the village, right by the sea where she arrived after her record-breaking swim.

So what exactly is her story? On August 6 1926, a 20-year-old American woman stunned the world by crossing the Channel in a record-breaking time of 14hrs 31mins. Having departed at 7am from Cap Gris-Nez, France, Gertrude sprang more than a surprise on the sleepy villagers of Kingsdown when she arrived at 9.40pm in Oldstairs Bay. She was dressed in a bikini (pretty shocking in those days, but she wore as little as possible when swimming to avoid chaffing), together with a pair of motorcycle goggles that she’d worked with her sister Margaret to have specially modified – they were the only eyewear then available with sufficient suction powers to withstand the pull of the sea. Gertrude wasn’t called ‘Queen of the Waves’ and ‘The Grease-Smeared Venus’ for nothing!

Great British Life: This was the scene that greeted Gertrude on her return to New York in 1926 This was the scene that greeted Gertrude on her return to New York in 1926 (Image: Wikicommons, Library of Congress prints and photography division)

Due to the extremely challenging, stormy conditions, she’d been forced to swim the equivalent of 35 miles - approximately 10 miles further than the anticipated point to point and taking her past both Dover and St Margaret’s Bay. Unbelievably, her feat still managed to smash the records of the five previous swimmers who had made the crossing between 1875 and 1923.

Her achievement was all the more astonishing given that Gertrude had first attempted the Channel swim only 12 months earlier, when she swam a staggering 23 miles in less than nine hours. Then, though, she was thwarted within fingertip-distance of her quest and had to be disqualified when one of her support team, thinking she was unconscious and drowning, touched her during the crossing, automatically voiding her swim. Undeterred, Gertrude vowed to try again, and her courage and determination were deservedly rewarded on her second attempt.

By the time of her death on the November 30, 2003, aged 98, the world-beating accomplishments of Gertrude’s youth were largely forgotten and only journalists seemed to remember her in their articles commemorating the 5th, 10th, 15th and 25th anniversaries of her swim.

Great British Life: Julian with the plaque he designed, featuring a John Dory. Julian with the plaque he designed, featuring a John Dory. (Image: Don Hough)

Without question, Gertie made a hugely memorable contribution in an era when many found it difficult to take female athletes seriously. Indeed, comparatively few women swam at all in those days. Her Channel swim went on to inspire thousands of women across the US and beyond to earn their Red Cross swimming certificates during the 1920’s. And 26-year-old Mercedes Gleitze, from just down the coast in Brighton, went on to become the first English woman to swim the Channel a little over a year later, an in a time of 15 hour and 15 minutes, also arriving in Kent, at St Margaret’s Bay.

Gertrude was profoundly deaf for most of her life, initially due to measles as a child, later made worse by love of water and swimming. She spent much of her latter life teaching deaf children how to swim and when she came ashore in Oldstairs Bay nearly a century ago, it is that legacy, I believe, that she left with the villagers of Kingsdown to take up and care for.

It was only on Gertrude’s death that I became more aware of her world-record-shattering feat. My late wife, Jaky, and I moved to Kingsdown in 2006 and the more we learned about the history of the village, and the beach of Oldstairs Bay where Gertrude came ashore, the more amazed we were that nothing had been put into place to commemorate her amazing achievement.

Great British Life: The Kingsdown villagers by the memorial stone - Julian is on the far left The Kingsdown villagers by the memorial stone - Julian is on the far left (Image: Don Hough)

Gertrude’s deafness had a major impact upon her very quality of life. Indeed Gertrude never married, asserting to one man that, ‘it might be difficult being married to a woman who could not hear well’. He agreed and vanished. After he left her, she said, ‘there never was anyone else. I just didn’t want to get hurt again’.

Being very deaf myself (I’d lost much of my hearing during my early working life in the car industry) I could identify with Gertrude’s torment on a number of levels. I became captivated by her life’s struggles and how, towards the end of her life, she became reclusive and feared that all her achievements – and she herself - would be forgotten. ‘I’ll sort it out, Gertie’, I said to her in my head, ‘I promise.’

The years moved on and I lost my way somewhat after Jaky died of Creutzfedt-Jakob disease (CJD) in 2014. Much of my time over the next few years was spent walking the shores of East Kent, where I found solace in the waves, and in collecting sea-glass and driftwood. I didn’t forget Gertie, though – and have ended up creating a two-fold tribute to that Queen of the Waves who triumphed at Kingsdown. I created a plaque in Gertie’s memory, made from some of that sea-glass I’d collected and featuring a John Dory fish (Zeus Faber), another mighty creature of the sea. With the support of landlords Dan and Toni Johnson it’s installed at the Rising Sun pub in Kingsdown and includes underneath it an invitation to folk to go to the beach to visit Gertie’s memorial, then to come back and donate via a collection box in the pub, with funds going, in her memory, to the National Deaf Children’s Society. Moreover, in collaboration with the Channel Swimmers Association (CSA), Dan and Toni are inviting those who have also completed this most iconic of challenges (either solo or as part of a team) to sign their name on the pub’s ceiling - we've got over 20 signatures so far.

Great British Life: Dan and Toni Johnson of the Rising Sun pub. Dan and Toni Johnson of the Rising Sun pub. (Image: Don Hough)

As for the beach memorial itself, with support from neighbour Rex Martin, we secured local authority approval, sourced a boulder that must weigh over a couple of tons (shifted with help of John Huggins and family of Chunnel Group) and a blue plaque that would withstand everything that the sea could throw at it. The memorial is now to be found by the Kingsdown Angling Club beach hut and the slipway area - the home of the Kingsdown swimmers, a group of around 25 who meet for sea swims on a daily basis. They’ve christened it, wholly appropriately, ‘Gertie’s stone’.

So far, these memorials, along with pamphlets telling Gertrude's story, put together with the help of another local friend, Sue Gregory, and the enthusiasm of all sorts of people - from Kingsdown Conservation Group and the Parish Council to Rural Roundup and Mark Ansell of SPC Print - have seen £3k raised in just five months in Gertrude's name, all in support of the National Deaf Children’s Society. We're optimistic that this support can only grow, with the Disney film bringing a new understanding of Gertie’s incredible achievement.

Great British Life: Dan and Toni Johnson of the Rising Sun pub. Dan and Toni Johnson of the Rising Sun pub. (Image: Julian Dalrymple)

Gertrude said of her swim, ‘I knew that if it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.’

Similarly, we here in Kingsdown said of her memorial, ‘we knew it should be done, it had to be done, and we did it’.

To support the NDCS in memory of Gertie, (ref Gertrude Ederle), or pop into The Rising Sun, or Del’s local shop in Kingsdown and use the collection box boxes there.