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Mercedes Gleitze (1900 - 1981):
Swimmer; pihilanthropist

Mercedes Gleitze was a distance and endurance swimmer, often described as an Open Water and Endurance Swimmer, who was the first British woman to swim the English Channel and reputedly the first to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. She also tackled some of the most challenging stretches in and around Ulster. Besides her swimming exploits which saw her break record after record, she dedicated herself to philanthropic activities. 

She was born in Brighton, England to German parents and grew up there, though also partly in Germany where her grandparents resided. She took an interest in swimming while working in central London with easy access to the River Thames. In 1923 she attracted attention with a continuous swim of 10 hours 45 minutes, considered a considerable achievement not least for a woman.   

1927 saw her most celebrated exploit though this celebrity was partly due to an element of controversy. The target was to swim the English Channel which Mercedes duly did; however, it was claimed that this feat had to yield to another woman who claimed to have pre-empted her. Although Mercedes failed in her “Vindication Swim” her alleged rival’s claim was later shown to be a hoax and Mercedes, who undertook this special swim at a time of year when swims of this type, were normally not held, was widely seen to have triumphed nevertheless and the record books accept that she became the first British woman to swim the Channel, on 7 October 1927. A film about the story, “Vindication Swim”, with a distinguished international cast is scheduled for release in 2022.

Her swims took her all over the British Isles and much further, all over the globe, particularly to the Southern Hemisphere: New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. She also swam across the Hellespont, between Europe and Asia. 

Her swims in Ulster were: Lough Neagh (breadthways); Lough Foyle, Moville to Portstewart (two swims, one in each direction); and Lough Neagh again (lengthways). She made several attempts to swim the North Channel but as all too often occurred, weather and tide factors were too unfavourable to complete the swims. She also took part in an endurance swim at Belfast Ormeau Baths.   

Mercedes was also asked to lend her name to many consumer goods, from tea to whisky, her best-known endorsement being for the Rolex watch manufacturers and especially their Oyster Perpetual model. Such was her significance in her field that as late as May 2022 she was appearing in a full-page commercial for Rolex watches published in leading newspapers in London and Dublin.

In 1927 she set in train a charity for the destitute and homeless. Her fund purchased a large house in relatively comfortable Leicester, to accommodate the very needy from areas of England. During the Second World War crisis her houses were used to shelter Czech refugees. Known popularly as “Gleitze Houses” the charity still functions. 

After her final retirement she settled down with her husband and three children. She died in London aged 80.

Born: 18 November 1900
Died: 9 February 1981
Richard Froggatt