The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

LAST week I devoted this column to the first in a series of articles by John Grant Gibson about channel swimmer Eileen Fenton who will be celebrating her 90th birthday next month.

This week we publish the second part of his interview with Eileen about her historic swim and also the welcome home she received in Dewsbury.

EPIC EFFORT: Eileen Fenton crawls to victory with a badly injured shoulder as the crowds are held back. If anyone had given her a helping hand she would have been disqualified. She had to completely clear the water before being hailed first woman home in this epic channel race in 1950.

EPIC EFFORT: Eileen Fenton crawls to victory with a badly injured shoulder as the crowds are held back. If anyone had given her a helping hand she would have been disqualified. She had to completely clear the water before being hailed first woman home in this epic channel race in 1950.

In one of the rowing boats accompanying her as she set off from France was the man who had trained her, Mr Robert Betts, the Superintendent of Dewsbury Baths.

Eileen, in her interview with John Grant many years later, recalled: “I got in the water, it was pitch black.

“I called to Mr Betts ‘Come on, don’t hang about. I want to get off.”

Striking out at 2.45am and swimming at 20 strokes a minute, by 4am she was two and a half miles from Cap Gris Nez.

This was in the days before specialist sports supplements, and at 6.25am she was passed ham and egg sandwiches.

The cold made it impossible for her to eat them, or anything else, including chocolate.

At 8.50am with eight miles to go, she was fighting the tide, and not making much forward progress. By 9.30am the BBC reported that she was the leading lady.

After nine hours Eileen was level with the eventual winner, the Egyptian, Lieutenant Rehim. Then, about noon, disaster struck in the form of an injury to her shoulder.

She had been drinking a mixture of coffee and glucose, and when she threw the vacuum flask back towards the boat, she jarred her shoulder.

With her right arm useless and tucked underneath her, she was to swim the last six-and-a-half hours using only one arm.

Later when interviewed for Pathe News, she casually mentioned that she had bruised her shoulder a bit. The truth was far different.

It was three months before she could work it properly.

The local journalist accompanying her in the guiding boat, Stanley Richardson, noted in his log: “12.45pm....cliffs come in sight through the mist. Eileen rests, floating on her back and using one arm.

“I shall never see a more moving spectacle than this.

“1.45pm....she is absolutely spent, but still swimming...... 2.15pm, navigator singing to her through megaphone, her favourite song The Mountains of Mourne.

“4.30pm – tide begins to take her in. She is simply willing herself to go on.... ‘never seen such a feat of endurance’ says the navigator.

Eileen later summed it up with these words: “I had been drifting towards Folkstone until I hit still water. Then the tide reversed and I ended up at Shakespeare Beach where I had always meant to land.”

The ordeal for Eileen was over when at 6.13pm she was crawling up the shingle, the rule being that she must completely clear the water unaided.

“There were thousands of spectators crowding round and they had to be held back.

“It was imperative that no-one should touch her lest she be disqualified.

“Once she had covered a yard, Mr Betts and a rower helped her into the beached rowing boat, wrapping her in blankets.

The journalist Stanley Richardson wrote: “I looked down on her and could not say a word. I was just choking with emotion… I turned away, too full for words, tears, absolutely impossible to check, rolling down my cheeks.”

Eileen had been swimming for 15 hours 31 minutes, and had covered no less than 35 miles according to the navigator Lieutenant Davidson.

They left Dover and went to the Dudley Hotel in Folkstone where she needed four baths before her grease coating (seven pounds of white lanolin) was finally removed.

The BBC made Eileen’s success into a thirty minute live television question and answer broadcast from Alexandra Palace.

The Daily Mail, being the organising body, made the story a feature, and all regional and local papers, proud of their own “lass”, covered the story of her triumphant return to Dewsbury where 15,000 people crowded outside Dewsbury Town Hall and the surrounding streets.

The Yorkshire Post carried the headline “Song of Welcome for Dewsbury Conqueror of the Channel”, which described how the children of Thornhill Lees, where Eileen lived, chanted a parody of a popular calypso song written by an employee at the town bus station.

Amongst the 3,000 thronging the streets of Thornhill Lees as she walked to her home, were her own pupils from Princess Mary High School, Halifax.

The following week there was an additional prize, bought by the citizens of Boulogne, a Desvres porcelain vase, which was presented to her at a civic reception in Dewsbury Town Hall.

Eileen had expected it to be, in her words “a nice little ornament for the sideboard or maybe the mantelpiece”.

It turned out to be over two feet high and weighing 100lbs, and was inscribed in French with the Boulogne coat-of-arms and congratulations.

On seeing it, Eileen immediately decided it should remain with the civic regalia at the Town Hall, where it stayed until the old Dewsbury Borough became part of the newly formed Kirklees Metropolitan Council.

It later became installed in Dewsbury Museum, along with the costume she wore to swim the channel and become the first woman home in the first international Channel Swim.

Although these items were removed from the Museum when it closed last year, they remain in the safe keeping of Kirklees Cultural Services and will be on show at various local exhibitions to be organised this year.

In appreciation of everything Eileen had done for her country and her home town, a portrait was commissioned by the old borough council and was hung in the old Dewsbury Swimming Baths until its closure many years ago.

However, another portrait, identical to that one, was commissioned by an internationally exhibited artist, David Martin, from Dewsbury, who sadly passed away last year.

Film of the Channel swim and Eileen’s welcome home to Dewsbury can be seen on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cv9R5F_xE8s.

If you watch it, have a handkerchief ready, you’ll need it. Once again grateful thanks to John Gibson for this contribution.