Brenda Fisher, who has died aged 95, was a world record swimmer in the English Channel. She achieved global fame during the 1950s for her long-distance challenges, becoming the first woman to complete two cross-Channel races, breaking records for the 29-mile River Nile race and the 32-mile Lake Ontario race. She was only the third person to complete the latter route.
In later years she taught hundreds of children to swim in her hometown of Grimsby, Lincolnshire. The publication of Brenda’s biography in 2015 saw a resurgence of interest in her achievements and three years later she was awarded a British Empire Medal. Always modest, Brenda said, “I enjoyed myself, but other people have done more important things.”
She was born in the family home in Grimsby where she was to live all her life, the youngest daughter of Enid (nee Winship) and Albert Fisher, a trawler. At the age of nine, Brenda suffered a stroke so severe it paralyzed one side of her body. Determined not to let it affect her, she learned to swim – and took up a sport that her older brother, Buster, and sister, Jessie, were hooked on.
Under their coach, Herbert McNally – known as Mr Mac, and himself a champion swimmer – Brenda trained first in speed, not distance. Private lessons cost one guinea. “He was very strict,” she recalled. “I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema; I had to train.”
This meant spending hours in the cold water of Grimsby docks. It was when Buster, aged 16, and Jessie, 15, swam the River Humber in 1938 that breaking records entered Fisher’s life; Buster became the youngest male to complete the cross and Jessie the first female. Soon afterwards, Brenda started remote training.
She took part in several races, winning the Morecambe Bay challenge in 1948, but a family tragedy focused her sporting prowess. Buster and Jessie had made a pact to take on ‘the big one’ – the Channel – but the Second World War intervened and Buster, aged 21 and in the RAF, was shot down and killed in action. His sisters continued to swim in his honor and were both accepted for the 1951 Channel race.
They trained hard, but when Jessie got appendicitis she had to retire. Brenda, now 24 years old, was going alone. At 07:29 on 17 August of the same year, she went into the water at Cap Gris-Nez, France. “I was fed sugar and chocolate every hour – a welcome break in the steady spark of creep lines,” she recalled. “I was never told about the progress I was making; all I wanted was to get over.”
At a rate of 25 beats per minute, increasing to 30 approaching Dover, Brenda climbed ashore, the first female home, in 12 hours 42 minutes – breaking the existing world record by 32 minutes. Her first words were, “Will someone tell my father?”
A whirlwind of publicity followed for the new queen of the channel. She took to the stage at this year’s Royal Command Performance, and was named sportswoman of the year. Back in Grimsby, she was given the highest possible honor – a tugboat was named after her.
In 1954, Brenda became the second woman to swim the Channel twice, home in just under 15 hours, and the first woman ashore. Her celebrity status was set, the media was buzzing with coverage of her performance – and there was more to come.
In April 1956, she was the fastest woman at home in that year’s River Nile race, finishing fourth overall. Four months later, she was in the headlines again, having completed a solo swim in Lake Ontario, Canada, in 18 hours and 51 minutes, breaking the existing record by more than two hours. “I was determined to conquer it,” she said. “I thought ‘I’m going to show the world what Britain is made of’.”
In 1957, after becoming the face of Quaker Oats and meeting Elvis Presley during a TV taping, Brenda still held the channel record and wanted to try again. After nine hours in the water and only five miles from Dover, she was forced to retire with seasickness – and her record was broken. At 31, she bowed out of competitive swimming: “I knew I had had enough.”
By the time she left Nunsthorpe Primary School at the age of 14, Brenda had trained as a stenographer and worked for a time in the offices of fishmonger and football administrator Arthur Drewry at Grimsby Brewery, and later for food group Ross. Although there were prizes for competitive swimming, most of the money was swallowed up in training and travel; at one point a group of local businessmen set up a fund to cover the cost of her expenses and kits such as lanolin.
When she married professional footballer Pat Johnston in 1954, the couple bought a sweet shop in Grimsby, running it together between their sporting commitments. Through local clubs and schools, Brenda also spent years coaching youth and advising long-distance swimmers, as an advocate for the sport. The Channel Swimming Association described her as “one of the true pioneer open water swimmers of the 20th century”.
Brenda’s name remained well known in Grimsby and when I interviewed her for the Grimsby Telegraph on the 60th anniversary of her canal swim, we talked about collaborating on a biography, and became firm friends during the research and writing of Blonde In Deep Water. With renewed interest in her career, a blue heritage plaque was erected in sight of the dock in which she had trained.
Pat died in 1971 and Jessie in 1994. Brenda is survived by a nephew and niece.