Researching Mercedes

RESEARCHING at FABRICA; Summer 2022 – by John

Our research was as background information for an upcoming Exhibition at Fabrica by the artist Vanessa Daws’; At Home in the Water’, part of a larger project ‘, Swimming a Long Way Together.’

The plan was that we would research the history of sea swimming around Brighton, with particular reference to a woman called Mercedes Gleitze, who was the first British woman to swim the English Channel, which she completed in 1927 on her seventh attempt.

I had no reference personally to swimming of any kind , sea or otherwise, and have always felt nervous in open water if I couldn’t feel something solid under my feet( ie being out of my depth). We were given a book to read ‘ In The Wake of Mercedes Gleitze’ , which was written by her daughter Doloranda Pember. This was my first contact with the life of this Brighton born woman whose last public swim was in August 1937.

Using the contents of the book as a reference point ,opened up the world of of outstanding endeavour and achievement that had encapsulated the life of Mercedes Gleitze.

We discovered that she was born in Brighton in 1900, her birthplace now adorned with a Blue Plaque, the site of which we subsequently visited, and that her upbringing was divided between her parents homeland of Germany and Brighton itself, the First World War years of separation from her father , who we discovered had been interned on the Isle of Man, and her own subsequent determination to live her life in England post 1918, which she did.

By researching further and using resources such as on- line , and at Brighton Library and The British Library in London, we were able to put together a comprehensive picture of Mercedes and her era, when endurance swimming by any female was regarded by society at the time as being anomalous, and women who indulged or attempted pursuits such as swimming the Channel or flying a plane were looked upon as being somewhat strange creatures, and really they would have been better served being at home bringing up a family ‘ in their proper place’.

All this background information was completely unknown to me initially, and it was rewarding to have been able to accumulate this knowledge through regular catch up meetings with fellow archivists on the project and by becoming members of The British Library. Altogether a rewarding experience.

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This summer my wife and I were travelling in Austria and on the train I picked up a free magazine and noticed a picture of Mercedes Gleitze on the first page, in an advert for Rolex Watches. For the remainder of the train journey, I then proceeded to inform my wife who the swimmer was in the photo, telling her all about Mercedes and her achievements and connection to Brighton.


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