Mercedes Gleitze

Mercedes Gleitze was an English open water swimming pioneer, who was the first British woman to swim the English Channel which she completed in 15 hours and 15 minutes (1927). She was also the first to swim the Straits of Gibraltar (1928). She actively fundraised selling postcards of herself amongst other initiatives. After her retirement in 1932, she devoted her remaining fortune to her cause, setting up Mercedes Gleitze Home for Destitute Men and Women in Leicester (1933).  

In 1932 she visited South Africa, where she completed the first double crossing to and from Robben Island (in two days). She also swam in various rivers around the country - Swartkops, Buffalo, Modder and Vaal, Hartebeespoortdam and Germiston Lake.

She was inducted into the Swimming International Hall of Fame in 2013.

 Photograph of Mercedes from the Gleitze archives, courtesy of her daughter, Doloranda,  who is currently writing a biography of Mercedes.

Mercedes was a British pioneer long-distance swimmer from Brighton on the south coast of England, the youngest of three daughters of German economic immigrants.  She was born into a world where sporting achievement was the prerogative of men, and women were conditioned into believing that they didn’t have the physical stamina to take part in such activities, or indeed that it was unseemly to do so.  However, by the time she was a young adult, small groups of women in various countries were gradually penetrating these ‘mind barriers’ and demonstrating that women could climb mountains, fly aeroplanes, run marathons and swim across seas.  Mercedes was one of these ‘new women’. 

Although she had a well-paid job as a stenographer with a London-based company and was living an independent life, she harboured an ambition to become a professional long-distance swimmer.  She decided to make the English Channel the platform from which to launch her new career.   She obtained permission to train in the Thames (a tidal river) on Sundays, and during her summer holidays she travelled to Folkestone to acclimatise to sea conditions.  It took her a while, but she persevered, and on her eighth attempt, on 7th October 1927, she became the first British woman (and third woman) to achieve this crossing.  Her swim was recognised by the newly-formed Channel Swimming Association. At that point in time she gave up office work and built up a unique career as a professional swimmer.  Her aquatic achievements over a ten-year period (see attached lists) have been recognised by the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) and the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF), into which she has been enshrined.

Tour of South Africa (February-July 1932):  During her career Mercedes travelled to various countries across the world to tackle previously un-swum bodies of water.   One of the last journeys she made before retiring into domesticity, was to carry out a tour of South Africa.   Her first event was an endurance swim in Cape Town’s Long Street Baths, increasing the British Record to 46 hours.   A few days later she undertook her main event - a two-way crossing between Cape Town and Robben Island.  The first leg of this swim was full of high drama caused by bitingly cold winds, low water temperature, and a dense fog which enshrouded the swimmer and her crew.  At one stage, when her pilot boat (The Flora) had gone to re-fuel, Mercedes swam off course in the dark, foggy conditions.  Luckily her guiding rowing boat, which was still with her, had a rifleman on board (because of possible attacks from basking white sharks), and they were eventually located an hour later by another accompanying passenger boat (The Chance) by the firing of rifle shots.  During this leg of the swim she was also badly stung by jelly fish.  The return swim back to Cape Town two days later was, thankfully, a more comfortable experience.

South Africa’s own Henry Charteris Hooper and Margaret (Peggy) Duncan had both made the crossing from Robben Island to Cape Town in 1909 and 1926 respectively.  However, no-one had ever swum in the reverse direction from Cape Town to Robben Island.  And so, in 1932 Mercedes was able to claim two new records: the first person to make the crossing from Cape Town to Robben Island and the first to achieve the double swim. 

Other South African swims: Following the successful Cape Town events, Mercedes then embarked on a tour of the East Cape, carrying out pioneering swims over set distances in South Africa’s rivers and lakes.  These includedthe Swartkops, Buffalo, Modder and Vaal rivers, Germiston Lake and the Hartbeespoort Dam.    She enjoyed a friendship with her contemporary, Peggy Duncan, and Peggy’s mother, during her stay in Cape Town, and Peggy was on poolside supporting Mercedes during her endurance swim at the Long Street Baths.

Charitable legacy:  On her retirement Mercedes instituted a charity with the money she had earned during her swimming career to help the unemployed in the city of Leicester during the Great Depression of the 1930s.   Although small, her Trust Fund is still active today and is being used to help families in poverty.

12 March 1932

25 March 1932


1932                All in South Africa

25 March         Cape Town to Robben Island – 9 hrs 12 mins

27 March        Robben Island to Cape Town – 7 hrs 36 mins

                        Set distances in the following rivers:

10 April             Swartkops River, Port Elizabeth – 6 and a half miles in 3 hrs 31 mins

17April              Buffalo River, East London – 7 miles in 6 hrs 21 mins

23 April             Modder River, Glen, Bloemfontein – 2 hrs 25 mins

8 May               Germiston Lake, Johannesburg – 6 miles in 5 hrs 38 mins

15 May              Hartbeespoortdam, Pretoria – 4 hrs 45 mins

22 May              Vaal River, Vereeniging – 6 hrs 44 mins


1923            British Ladies’ Record for Thames Swimming over the 27-miles’ stretch between Putney and Silvertown, in 10 hours 45 minutes


18–29 July      From Westminster Bridge down the Thames to Folkestone (120 miles in 10 stages)

7 October        English Channel (France to England ) – 15 hrs 15 mins


6 April             Strait of Gibraltar – 12 hrs 50 mins


21 June            The Wash – 13 hrs 25 mins

12July             Lough Neagh (breadthways) – 13 hrs 48 mins

13 July            Loch Ryan – 3 hrs 38 mins

28July            Firth of Forth – 11 hrs 22 mins

17 August       Lough Foyle (Moville to Portstewart) – 8 hrs

20 August       Lough Foyle (Portstewart to Moville) – 7 hrs

8September    Lough Neagh (lengthways) – 20 hrs 1 min


13–18 June      Around the Isle of Man (100 miles in 9 stages; 56 hrs 45 mins’ total swimming time)

6  August          Hellespont (Dardanelles) – Europe to Asia Minor – 2 hrs 55 mins

22 August       Hellespont (Dardanelles) – Asia Minor to Europe – 3 hrs 5 mins

3 September    Sea of Marmara – 7 hrs 20 mins

25 December  Wellington Harbour, New Zealand – 7 hrs 3 mins


21 January      Rangitoto Island to Cheltenham, New Zealand – 1 hr 30 mins

24 January      Won Manly Swimming/Floating Endurance Competition, Sydney, Australia – 48 hrs 15 mins

5 August         Galway Bay, Eire – 19 hrs


(All carried out in British pools, except where indicated)


Hrs     City                             Date                                        Venue

26        Edinburgh                   31 Dec 1929/1 Jan 1930         Infirmary Street Baths

28        Dublin, Eire                9–10 February 1930                Tara Street Baths

30        Cork, Eire                   25–26 February 1930              Eglinton Street Baths

31        Liverpool                    7–8 March 1930                      Westminster Road Baths

32        Derby                          28–29 March 1930                  Reginald Street Baths

33        Huddersfield               4–5 April 1930                        Ramsden Street Baths

34        Belfast                        21–22 April 1930                    Ormeau Baths

35        Leicester                     19–20 May 1930                     Belgrave Baths, Cossington St.

36        Sheffield                     23–24 May 1930                     Glossop Street Baths

37        Douglas                       9–10 June 1930                       Henry Bloom Noble Baths

38        Stafford                       3–4 July 1930                         Royal Brine Baths

39        Wolverhampton          18–19 July 1930                     Municipal Baths

40        Leicester                     12–13 September 1930           Belgrave Baths, Cossington St.

40½     Dundee                        24–25 September 1930           Central Baths

41        Hull                             9–10 October 1930                 Madeley Street Baths

41½     Newcastle                   24–25 October 1930               Northumberland Baths

42        Dublin, Eire                3–4 November 1930               Tara Street Baths

42½     Wellington, NZ           31 Dec 1930/1 Jan 1931         Boys Institute Baths, Tasman St.

43        Auckland, NZ             16–17 January 1931                Auckland Tepid Baths

43½     Christchurch, NZ        12–13 March 1931                  Manchester Street Tepid Baths

44        Adelaide, Aus             10–11 April 1931                    Crystal Swimming Pool, Unley

44½     Melbourne, Aus          17–18 April 1931                    Brunswick Baths

45        Rotherham                  31 Dec 1931/1 Jan 1932         Main Street Baths

45½     Chesterfield                15–16 January 1932                Central School Baths

46        Cape Town, SA          18–19 March 1932                  Long Street Baths

46½     Huddersfield               31 Dec 1932–1 Jan 1933        Cambridge Road Baths

47        Worthing                    18–20 May 1933                    Corporation Baths


It is one thing to claim a watch is waterproof. It is quite another to prove it. In 1927 a Rolex Oyster crossed the English Channel, worn by a young English swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze. The swim lasted over 10 hours and the watch remained in perfect working order at the end of it.