Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society’s final talk of 2016 was given by Brian Meharg on 8 December. His subject was the swimmer Mercedes Gleitze. She was born in Brighton in 1900 to a German family. Her father was a baker. He was interned as an enemy alien during World War One, but she and her mother had already returned to Bavaria. When the war ended she returned to England despite family opposition. She became a secretary, but developed a great love for the sea and swimming.
Mercedes’ swimming soon made her famous. She advertised bathing costumes and appeared at the opening of swimming clubs. The money she received was used to set up a charity for those left destitute by the war. Her earliest swims were in the River Thames, but soon she was taking on greater challenges.
In 1927 at her eighth attempt she became the first English woman to swim the English Channel. She was fed grapes and honey, took tea and sang songs. The swim took 15 hours and 15 minutes and she collapsed after her arrival in England. Other endurance swims followed, such as the Hellespont, Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, the Straits of Gibraltar and Robben Island to Capetown. Rolex used her to advertise its Oyster watch.
Some of her swims took place in Ulster. She swam for 34 hours at the Ormeau Baths and across Lough Foyle from Moville to Portstewart. Then she announced that she wanted to swim the North Channel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. At first the plan was to swim from Scotland. A committee was formed in Stranraer and two pilots were organised, one from Donaghadee and the other from Scotland. The swim was to take place in 1928, but everyone said it was impossible and the plan was scrapped. The route was changed, starting from Donaghadee and finishing at Portpatrick. Mercedes was at a circus in Blackpool and had a limited time to attempt the swim.
When she arrived in Donaghadee large crowds came to see her. She stayed at the Royal Hotel, now Pier36. On 24 June 1928 she set off from Robbie’s Point where she had to walk over rocks. The water was still very cold and she had to be brought back to Donaghadee. A second attempt on 26 July was also unsuccessful.
Another attempt on 26 August also failed as did the fourth and last attempt. Mr Meharg attributed the failure to lack of knowledge of such matters as navigation and diet compared to today. The first person to swim the North Channel was Tom Blower nineteen years later. He was accompanied by the Mercedes pilot boat which had been used on Mercedes’ third attempt and named after her. The boat is now in a very poor state of repair at Ringhaddy on the shores of Strangford Lough.
Mercedes became secretly engaged to a soldier with whom she corresponded until they met at Dover in 1931. She did not marry him, but instead married Patrick Carey from Dublin. She retired from swimming in 1932. The money she made from swimming and advertising enabled her to open the first Mercedes Gleitze home in 1933. She kept detailed records of her career and plans have been made for a film of her life. She was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame at Cork.
She died on 9 February 1981.