Swimming against the tide


In October 1927, a Harley Street doctor smashed the women’s record for swimming the Channel and became an international sensation. But all was not quite as it seemed.

In the early years of the 20th century, female physicians in Britain were not exactly thick on the ground, but their number was rising, with more than 100 practicing in London. For some reason, in Marylebone, twice as many of these professional women chose to buff up their brass plates on Wimpole Street rather than Harley Street, the parallel “gloomy but fashionable thorough fares”that have long been home to prominent members of the medical community. But at 39 Harley Street, female patients could consult Dr Dorothy Cochrane Logan, who practiced in general obscurity until October 1927 when her name became known worldwide overnight.

On the evening of 10th October, Dr Logan walked into the waters of the English Channel at Cap Griz Nez, near Calais, wearing nothing but her goggles; her female form was coated with the recommended black axle grease. Just before nine the following morning, beside the seaside in Folkestone, early beachgoers were startled to see a woman swimming toward shore. From an escort boat, great cheers were heard. Herbert Carey, Dr Logan’s trainer, leapt from the boat carrying a waterproof mac—for modesty’s sake—as the weary swimmer emerged and waded the last few steps to the sand. Carey proclaimed that a new women’s record had just been established,shattering the mark set by Gertrude Ederle, the American who had recently been the first of her sex to make the swim.

Dr Logan had previously swum under the name of ‘Mona McLellan’, wishing to keep her professional and natatorial lives separate. She had tried the crossing twice before, but failed. Curiously, her third effort had not been publicly announced. Carey said it had been a last minute decision taken because the conditions were just too good. The waters were smooth and warm, and overhead hung a splendid moon. Through the night, pausing only for some beef tea, Dorothy swam magnificently, mostly employing the backstroke, her favourite. When the sun rose, and helped by a powerful tide, she made excellent progress and climbed out of the waters near Shakespeare’s Cliff at 8:50 in the morning. Ederle’s mark had been broken by an impressive one hour and 13 minutes. Onlookers surged to the scene,reporters arrived. Finally, the doctor shouted to Carey, “Oh, drive them away.”  In London, her mother, the self-declared “proudest mother in England”, said: “It’s just like Dorothy not to make a big deal, as she hates publicity.”

Big news
This was, obviously, big news. The News of the World summoned Dr Logan to London the following day to present her with a cheque for £1,000. The paper’s owner, Lord Riddell, had put up the sum for any British woman who could better Ederle’s time. An affidavit was placed before the new record holder: “I, Dorothy Cochrane Logan of Harley Street, in the county of London, do, at the office of The News of the World to claim their £1,000 prize, solemnly and sincerely declare...” to whit, that she swam the whole way, that she never left the water, that she had no physical assistance, and that she hadn’t been towed in any way. She signed it and walked out with the money, and the newspaper wired its exclusive to the world.

In London, Dr Logan was the lion ofthe season, feted at a grand dinner by the British Medical Association. As ever, there were doubters. Her rival swimmers had thought that Dorothy was,well,in over her head, as a distance swimmer. “If she can do it in13 hours, Gertrude could do it in six,”said one. As for Miss Ederle,she sportingly wired her congratulations from the States but withheld comment. In France, of course, what would you expect? “C’est incroyable.”This despite several confirmed reports that Dr Logan was seen beginning her swim that Monday evening.

The following Monday, 17th October, Dr Logan called upon Sir Emsley Carr, editor of the News of the World. “Sir Emsley,”she asked,“do you believe I swam the Channel?” The editor nodded. “Well,I did nothing of the kind and I want you to tell the world.” What was quickly labeled ‘the Hoax of the Century’ all began as some good-natured chaff. Channel swims were ‘the thing’ that year. In good weather, there might be a half dozen swimmers in the water at any time. So many, apparently, that a ‘hazard to navigation’ warning was issued in the Dover Strait.

Dr Logan admitted that she, Carey and a few others were sitting around in Hythe discussing the complete lack of any rules or governing body to authenticate a Channel swim. Why, anyone with a swimming costume could wade into La Manche then bob up in old Blighty and claim a new record. “Let’s do this,” someone said, as someone always will. Before the fact, Dorothy wrote her “manifesto”: “I intend to get across somehow with the purpose of proving the necessity of independent umpires to prevent possible abuses.” She mailed one copy to her office in Harley Street and the other went into the hotel safe in Hythe.

The diary reveals
Carey had kept a private, detailed chronology of the crossing. Dr Logan had, in fact, entered the water, fully greased, at 7:40 on Monday evening. What was not previously acknowledged was that, two hours later, at 9:30, Carey “took swimmer out of the water”. Dorothy, who was a much better swimmer than a sailor, then spent several seasick hours, wrapped in a rug in a little cabin below deck with “a vile and wicked stove”. Then, at 6:20 in the morning, the diary laconically reveals,“swimmer re-greased & entered water three miles s-e from S Foreland Lighthouse”. It was broad daylight but they were unobserved. So strong was the tide and the current that Dr Logan had to tread water so as not to arrive too soon and spoil the hoax.

The news was stunning.“The mysterious medico” went into hiding, insisting that her object had beena chieved. Until the Channel Swimming Association set procedures and authentication standards, no records can have any validity. “I am sure the end will justify the means,”said Dorothy.Toher credit, she’d never cashed the cheque for £1,000 but took it to her bank in Harley Street and signed it back to the account of the newspaper.

Whether or not the means were justified, it was certainly not the end. Dorothy Logan was fined £100 for swearing to a false affidavit, “treating with contempt and ridicule an important part of our legal system”. The BMA. went from honouring her at dinner to making a bid to strike her off the rolls. At her hearing,she told her fellow physicians: “I am sorry I was such an idiot.” They did not expel her but censured her, declaring that she “imperfectly realises the importance of a doctor’s signature”

"Sir Emsley, do you believe I swam the Channel? Well, I did nothing of the kind and I want you to tell the world"