A Dewsbury Great.
One of a select group of individuals born, bred or living in Dewsbury who have made their mark on their town and country. The Dewsbury Greats have featured in various exhibitions and publications since they were first researched and published in 1992.
The Thornhill Lees teacher who braved a gruelling Channel swim
NO sportswoman has brought greater honour or pride to Dewsbury than long distance swimmer Eileen Fenton — first woman home in a world famous cross-Channel swim from France to England on 26th September 1950.
Dewsbury people went wild with joy when news came through that the plucky 22-year old from Thornhill Lees had completed the Incredible swim and was first woman home.
Eileen, only five feet tall and weighing less than eight stones, had swum continuously for 15 hours
alongside the world's strongest swimmers in a sea that was so cold the piece of chocolate she tried to eat would not melt in her mouth.
The tiny figure, who had sustained a badly injured arm on the swim, crawled out of the English Channel on hands and knees Her lips were badly swollen by sea water and she had been told not to stand tn case she collapsed. An Egyptian swimmer. the first man home, rushed to pick her up and jubilantly cried “I am the King of the Channel and you are my Queen'"
Twenty seven countries had competed In the gruelling swim and only six finished. Eileen representing Great Britain, was third. Her fantastic achievement attracted worldwide attention and news of her success was relayed on Pathe News broadcasts in cinemas throughout Britain.
When It became known she had completed the last few miles In agonising pain from her arm injury, she was hailed a national heroine .
Experts said without doubt she would have broken the world record for both men and women if it had not been for her Injury.
Waiting for her back home was the kind of reception Dewsbury people reserved for royalty alone.
Over 15,000 people crowded into the town centre to meet her and another 3,000 waited outside her home in Ingham Road. Thornhill Lees. Union Jacks hung from windows and hundreds of children waved flags.
The Mayor and Corporation travelled In a fleet of cars to Doncaster Railway Station to meet her off the London train and escort her back to Dewsbury for a civic reception. Eileen, who had practiced for the gruelling swim in Dewsbury mill dams and ten hours non-stop every Sunday in Dewsbury Baths, was described as "the pluckiest little girl in the world" by her Channel navigator. The Town Council passed a resolution praising her great courage and endurance and thanked her for bringing great honour to the town of her birth
But Eileen, who taught at Eastborough School and Earlsheaton Modern School, never forgot it was the ordinary people of Dewsbury who had made the Channel swim possible. They had a public appeal whlch raised the £250 Eileen needed to lake part. She also remembers with pride and emotion the giant open air children’* party neighbours in Thornhill Lees gave her. Eileen’s prize for being first woman home w as £1.000. presented by the Dally Mali, who had sponsored the race. One of the first things she did was to write out cheques for the pilot and navigator of the boat which had accompanied her and bought presents for her family.
Eileen was never again lo pay admission to Dewsbury Baths where she had learned to swim as a baby.
She was given the freedom of the baths by the Town Council and presented with a silver tea service.
They also commissioned an oil painting of her in the swimming costume which she wore to swim the Channel. It was hung in Dewsbury Baths, facing the pool where she had practiced for the most famous swim in history. It Is now on display in Dewsbury Town Hall.
Thoughts of her supporters kept injured Eileen going through the dark icy water.
EILEEN still remembers vividly most of the details of the longest swim of her life when the sea looked like pitch black velvet and she could not see a thing. "I was worried about what might be in the water with me," she recalled.
All she had to guide her from Cap-Gris-Nez on the French coast to Dover was a light which dangled from the stern of the tiny rowing boat accompanying her. She had been trained to endure the cold but the darkness filled her mind and she hoped it would soon be light. In places the sea was rough and when it began to rain she laughed when the crew in the boat complained "It’s all right for you — but we're wet through in here’"
After nine hours in the water Eileen could see the cliffs of Dover and estimated she would be home in two hours. She was lying joint first with Egyptian swimmer Hassen Abdul Kehim. one of the captains of King Farouk’s bodyguards. Eileen decided to have a warm drink — a decision she was to regret the rest of her life. For while throwing the empty mug back into the boat she injured her arm. rendering it useless and the two and a half hour swim took six and a half.
Eileen, who was in great pain and swimming with with only three limbs, struggled against all odds in the Icy sea. She faithfully followed the instructions of her trainer, Mr Robert Betts, sitting in the little boat which guided her. A local journalist recorded at the time that tears were rolling down Mr Betts’ cheeks as he urged the pathetic little figure to keep going.
"Come on love, come on Eileen, you're nearly there — don’t give up now,’’ he called out to her. "i’m trying — I’m trying." she called back.
To help keep her spirits up. her navigator, Lt Robert W Davidson, sang Eileen’s favourite song The Mountain's ol Mourne through a megaphone. A young swimmer from Dewsbury. Mary Bailey, swam the last gruelling two miles with her.
But in the final hours. Mr Betts could take no more and moved by sheer desperation, called out
heartbreakingly: “Shall we take you out lass? You’ve tried, you can’t do any more."
Eileen shouted back: "I'm not coming out. I'm not giving up now, I’ll do It!”
Two hours Iater, to the accompaniment of wild cheering and the hooting of ships’ sirens, “the pluckiest little girl in the world" reached the shore.
Eileen Fenton from Dewsbury. representing Great Britain. had conquered the Channel. Hardened reporters standing on the beach openly shed tears as she crawled painstakingly up the shingle, and the crowds, hysterical with joy, rushed around, pushing and fighting to get a glimpse of the Queen of the Channel'.
Eileen’s navigator. Lt Davidson, who had spent four years minesweeping in the Straits during the war and knew the Channel like the back of his hand, said he had seen some fine examples of courage in action but never such a display of sheer guts as Eileen had displayed "She is the pluckiest little girl in the world!" he said.
Eileen admitted to reporters afterwards that the last stretch had been a trial but something had kept telling her to go on "I couldn’t let down all those people back home, especially the kiddies who were banking on me making it,” she said.
When asked what she had been thinking about during her long hours in the sea she replied "Nothing at all - I was lust praying and concentrating on following the boat."
Cinemas in Dewsbury had stopped the films to flash the news of Eileen’s win on screen. When Eileen heard how her success had been received she told reporters "l feel the happiest I have ever been".
AFTER the successful Channel swim, Eileen devoted most of her spare time coaching swimmers and travelled the world as chaperone to the British Swimming Team. One of her pupils. Dewsbury girl Jean Oldroyd. became an international swimmer and swam in the Olympic Games in Rome. Another, Jill Slattery’, who trained at Dewsbury, was captain of the British Swimming Team at the Mexico Olympics and the Jamaica Empire Games where she won two gold medals. Another of her pupils who trained at Dewsbury, Wendy Brook, of Ossett, swam the Channel in 1975. She broke the world record by seven minutes for men
and women at her first attempt, with Eileen right behind her.
Eileen, who has taught thousands of local youngsters to swim, was at one time secretary, treasurer and coach of Dewsbury Swimming Club and was one of the first people to pass all the Amateur Swimming Association coaching exams.
Eileen never forgot the generosity of local people who had helped to finance her Channel swim and gave most of her spare time to working for Dewsbury Swimming Club "Dewsbury was my home and I always felt I owed the Dewsbury people something for raising the money to make it possible for me to swim the Channel’ she said.
Eileen’s first marathon swim was with her sister. Molly, when they were both teenagers. The two girls, totally inexperienced in long distance swimming in the sea. entered the Morecambe Bay Swim and completed it, much to the surprise of the organisers of the race.
"We turned up wearing motorcycle goggles because the shops in Dewsbury didn't sell swimming goggles in those days and one of the rules was that we couldn't do the swim without them.”
In 2019, Eileen was awarded the MBE in the Queen's Birthday honours for voluntary service to Long Distance and Competitive Swimming Coaching in Yorkshire and Great Britain
The seventieth anniversary of her epic swim was commemorated on ITV