The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

MIGHTY ATOM: Eileen Fenton is pictured at the BBC's Alexandra Palace.
MIGHTY ATOM: Eileen Fenton is pictured at the BBC's Alexandra Palace.

RECENTLY I wrote about channel swimmer Eileen Fenton from Dewsbury and how her 90th birthday was fast approaching.

What I hadn’t realised was there are thousands living in Dewsbury, especially the younger generation, who know little about this remarkable lady and her epic channel swim.

Margaret Watson.

Margaret Watson.

I have interviewed Eileen many times during my 60-year journalistic career, and have perhaps assumed everyone knew about her historic swim.

I now realise they don’t.

Therefore, for the next two weeks, I am serialising more about the swim and using an interview with Eileen carried out by a friend of mine, John Grant Gibson, when she was aged 82.

John, who lives in Thornhill, starts his article, which first appeared in the Best of British magazine, with the following quote given to him by Eileen about how she trained for the swim:

She told him: “Before the race my mother built me up from seven stones ten pounds to eight stones. I had a pint of Horlicks every night, and nearly all my family’s meat ration – we were still using Ration Books in 1950.”

John’s interview continues: “The race was the first International Cross Channel Swimming Race and Eileen was a competitor and the first woman to finish.

“The prize awarded by The Daily Mail was £1,000 each to the first man and the first woman to complete the crossing.

“That was on the 22nd of August 1950, when she was just 22, and when the prize money would have bought an average house.

“Miss Fenton was speaking to me in the setting of her home for 50 years, a semi-detached house in a pleasant area of the city of Wakefield, near Sandal castle. We were only a few miles from her home town of Dewsbury in the Heavy Woollen District of the former West Riding of Yorkshire, where she had trained for this mammoth task

“The first impression is not of someone who has reached the age of 82 years; still at a slim eight stones and five feet tall she has the appearance of someone 20 years younger.

“I had just been treated to a viewing of her own DVD compilation of the Pathe newsreels of her channel swim, presented to her by the Mayor of Dewsbury on behalf of Associated British Pathe Ltd.

“The distinctive period tone of the commentator brought drama to the situation as he described the diminutive swimmer’s efforts, made more moving because of an injury she sustained in the latter part of the race.

“But before dealing with the actual race, Eileen explained the preparations, including the Horlicks diet because she had originally been told by the organisers she was not big enough to compete, but she was determined to prove she was up to the challenge.

“She told me she had to take the cold-water test at Scarborough, swimming from the harbour wall to the South Bay pool.

“It was 44 degrees – after the North Sea the Channel was almost warm.

“Eileen showed me a selection of press cuttings covering events before and after the race. I noted that a local newspaper, the Dewsbury District News and Chronicle, having organised a fund to meet the expenses of her training, reported raising £250.

“The published list shows that £2.2s.0d was donated by the Wheelwright Grammar School Old Girls’ Association (where she had been a pupil), contrasting with £1.1s.0d. by the Wheelwright Grammar School Old Boys’ Association (my former school).

“The newspaper’s headline for Saturday 19 August 1950 stated: Eileen – The Mighty Atom – is at the Peak of Fitness.

“Their reporter Stanley Richardson was at the training sessions in Folkstone, and described Eileen as being the only swimmer who had been in the sea every day, no matter how rough the sea had been.

“Eileen qualified this by saying: ‘The leader of the Egyptian team was the Captain of King Farouk’s bodyguard, Lieutenant Hassan Abdel Rehim, and when he found that out, he made sure that I never swam alone again’.

“The Lieutenant and his team each placed a £10 bet on Eileen to be the first woman ashore. ‘That’s nothing’, said Eileen, ‘you could have got 10 to 1 in the harbour from the fishermen, but when the Egyptians put their bets on the odds lowered to 3 to 1’.

“In that week the birth of Princess Anne was announced, and Eileen’s name was first on the list on the telegram from all the swimmers.

“She handed me a photograph of the six women entrants, all looking very young, with Eileen clearly the smallest. In total there were 24 swimmers from 18 countries. Only nine finished, Eileen being the sixth.

“In the newspaper edition following the race, reporter Stanley Richardson’s leading article provided a record of Eileen’s progress hour by hour, as he was in the pilot boat and within a few yards for the whole of the swim.

I defy anyone to read his account “…of this unsurpassed epic of courage and endurance” without getting a lump in the throat.

“After sailing from Dover to Cap Gris Nez her party joined the rest of the swimmers on the beach near Wissant village in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

“Each swimmer was accompanied by two boats, an official motorboat and a rowing boat with a trainer and food and drink.

“In Eileen’s motor boat were an official pilot, a reserve rowing crew, a Daily Mail umpire, and the reporter.

“At the last minute they were joined by a volunteer navigator, Lieutenant Robert W. Davidson R.N.V.R. of Old Coulsden, Surrey.

“He had four years in the war minesweeping and knew the Channel as well as anyone. Using his special knowledge he set a course and when Eileen’s shoulder injury occurred, he promised that ‘If only she can keep moving, I will get her ashore’.

Next week we will publish the second part of John’s interview which includes what happened during the swim and how it was completed.