Vindication Swim. The Story of Swimming Pioneer Mercedes Gleitze.

Kirsten Callaghan as Mercedes Gleitze in Vindication Swim.
Photographer: Studio Essy

On the 24th January, a blue plaque was unveiled in Brighton to honour Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel in 1927.  The English Channel was not her only swimming endeavour, other achievements included swimming across the Straight of Gibraltar, around the Isle of Man and Cape Town to Robin Island. You may be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the name Mercedes Gleitze. Remarkably, even her family were not fully aware of her achievements until after she died, however in the 1920s and 1930s she was a celebrity, with sponsorship from brands including Rolex. With the money that she raised through sponsorship, she funded a charity for the homeless. 

Later this year, Relsah Films will release a film titled Vindication Swim, which tells part of Gleitze's remarkable story in which a rival claimed to accomplish the swim across the English Channel before her. The story of her battle to overcome both the English Channel and the patriarchal society of 1920s England is inspiring and still resonates today.  We spoke with actor John Locke who plays Gleitze’s coach Harold Best in the film. Best had a history of being a great sea swimmer, but as Locke explains. “When we meet him in the film he is a deeply troubled man and we find out in the course of the film why he is so troubled and the complexity of the relationship between coach and swimmer emerges”. 

Vindication swim Mercedes Gleitz and Harold BestKirsten Callaghan and John Locke as Mercedes Gleitze and Harold Best in Vindication Swim. Photographer: Stewart Weir.

"The whole thing from an actor's point of view in studying the character and then going out to sea, for me was an absolute premiere highlight of everything that I've done in the past, it was an amazing experience."

The filming of Vindication Swim took place over three years and the filming was kept as genuine and authentic as possible. Locke explained. “We had a rowing boat in the harbour at Newhaven. We also had the services of an excellent boat crew and they would take us out in the boat to row and we were actually out there beside Kirsten Callaghan as Mercedes and rowing with her all the time”.  Kirsten trained in open water before taking on the role. “There were no body doubles in the water swimming, it is just Kirsten doing it the whole time and we were really genuinely rowing, we had no secret motor boat there. Filming conditions became quite challenging at times. I lost count of the number of times we were out there." says Locke. On the first occasion filming, the crew in the rowing boat experience sea sickness, but after that took precautions so that they didn't suffer for the rest of the filming.

Vindication Swim Photographer Martin Tomes
John Locke and members of the crew watching Kirsten Callaghan in the water during filming of Vindication Swim. Photographer: Martin Tomes.

“At the time, the training methods were somewhat basic. Training was more difficult and challenging compared to now."

The film highlights the differences between the technology and methods used by today’s coaches, compared to the methods of the 1920s. Locke described. “At the time, the training methods were somewhat basic. Training was more difficult and challenging compared to now. Cycling for example, only had boneshaker 'cycles, which were uncomfortable and lacking gears and the idea of diet, for performance, was in its infancy.  What the coach was looking for first of all, was the swimmer's physical form, how she was shaped and where the strength was in her legs and her ankles."

Locke explains. “It is the endurance of just keeping swimming over and over again that is the driving force between Harold Best's relationship with Mercedes, and Mercedes own training methods of being in the water for hours on end and just training the body to deal with the with the cold and changing temperature. Also, as we know only too well on the channel swim with the changing tides, you can get close to the other coast and yet you still have to keep going. There is a substantial amount of mental development goes on there as well.  There were no such things as gymnasiums, the individual swimmer was mostly just out in the water swimming. She swam for hours and hours in the Thames, at a time the Thames was no doubt absolutely filthy and would have had substantial amounts of river traffic around,” says Locke.  The basic training of the 1920's also emphasises the achievement of Gleitze and her coach in that era. "It is extraordinary now  to think that with the various motorized launches that they can have that the support vessels of the time would have been a rowing boat and they would literally have rowed across the water with them and dealt with changing tides in the same way."

After her channel crossings, Gleitze's training became a spectator event. Lock describes. "Mercedes went to pool after pool up and down the country. Local people would pay to just come and see her swim up and down for hours on end whilst being encouraged to sing her along."

Mercedes Gleitze Blue Plaque Unveiling. Credit: Martin Tomes.
Blue Plaque unveiling to honour the achievements of Mercedes Gleitze.  Photographer: Simon Tomes.

"I think that there is encouragement for people of all ages to go in and do it, and to battle, and to see what the world will make of you when you actually succeed”.

Gleitze's story brings a message of determination and achievement against the odds. “Mercedes Glietze is premier amongst our heroes of sporting achievement”, says Locke.  "Now with all the focus there is on women's place in sports, and how in sporting history, their achievements have been largely marginalised. I think one of the messages for people now, is that this woman battled the patriarchy, battled the difficulties that there were in establishing herself. She was in her professional work a London typist, the idea that a typist could do that kind of thing simply wasn't recognized. So I think that there is encouragement for people of all ages to go in and do it, and to battle, and to see what the world will make of you when you actually succeed. Mercedes showed how it was possible to to battle the prejudices which no doubt remain against women doing endurance events”.

Vindication Swim by Relsah Films is due for release later this year.