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
MERCEDES GLEITZE – OPEN WATER SWIMS
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
MERCEDES GLEITZE – ENDURANCE SWIMS
(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.