BLONDE IN DEEP WATER
Born in Grimsby, she was the daughter of Albert Fisher, a trawler skipper and Enid Winship. She had an older brother, Buster, and an older sister, Jessie.
Aged 9, Brenda suffered severe sunstroke, which led to paralysis of one side of her body.
To improve her movement she took up swimming. Her siblings were already keen swimmers.
Her coach, Herbert McNally (known as ‘Mac’), was a champion swimmer himself. He trained Brenda in speed not distance. Most of the swimming was done in Grimsby Harbour. “He was very strict. I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema. I had to train.”
In 1938, Buster (aged 16) and Jessie (aged 15) swam the River Humber and broke records doing so. He was the youngest male swimmer to complete this feat, she was the first female.
Brenda also wanted to break records so she started training for distance and began entering competitions.
She left school at 14, trained as a shorthand typist and started working in the offices of Arthur Drewry on the Grimsby docks. He was a fish merchant and football administrator (who eventually sold out to the Ross Food Group).
Buster and Jessie made a pact to swim ‘The Big One’ i.e. the English Channel. But the war broke out and Buster was called up to the RAF. Sadly, he was shot down and killed in action.
So, Brenda said she would replace Buster in the pact and would one day swim the channel.
Meanwhile, in 1948, she won her first major race, the ‘Morecambe Challenge’.
Finally, both sisters were selected for the 1951 Channel Race. Unfortunately, Jessie got appendicitis and was forced to withdraw.
On 17th August 1951, Brenda entered the water at Cap Griz-Nes in France, along with the other swimmers. She was just 24-years old.
She swam impressively (in her woollen swimming costume). “I was fed hourly, on sugar and chocolate – a welcome break in the steady grind of crawl strokes…I was never told of the progress I was making: all I wanted was to get across.” The only photograph taken of her effort was from the supporting boat, which was just a wooden rowing boat. The Grimsby Telegraph was the only newspaper allowed to have a reporter aboard.
Brenda got faster as she got closer to Dover.
She won the women’s race and broke the world record as well. The previous record of 13 hours and 20 minutes was made by Florence Chadwick in 1950. Brenda beat this by 32 minutes (12 hours, 42 minutes). The first thing she said when told of her record-breaking swim was, “Will someone tell my Dad?”
Interviewed by the press she merely said, “I’m very pleased”, but added, “I swam it for my brother”.
She was given a lot of publicity. The press labelled her ‘The Queen of the Channel’. Brenda was awarded £1,000 and was given a silver cup, presented by Eva Peron, the First Lady of Argentina.
Brenda was ‘paraded’ on stage during the Royal Command Performance, named ‘Sportswoman of the Year’ (1951), but best of all, had a tug named after her in Grimsby.
She was driven in a motorcade through the streets of her hometown (she was in an open-topped vehicle). It stopped at number 210 Hope Street so she could have a cup of tea with family friends Mr and Mrs Waters.
People brought pianos out onto the street so they could have a sing song. Then she received a magnificent reception in Grimsby Town Hall. 60,000 locals turned out to see her. She became an instant celebrity.
In 1954, Brenda became the first woman to swim the Channel twice. She won the Channel Race again but was much slower – just under 15 hours.
That same year she married professional footballer Pat Johnson. Together they bought a sweet shop in Grimsby and ran it alongside their sporting commitments.
In 1956 she swam the Nile Race which was 29 miles. She won the women’s competition and finished 4th overall.
Then she swam Lake Ontario, 32 miles in 18 hours and 51 minutes, a new world record. “I was determined to conquer it. I thought I’ll show the world what Britain is made of.”
Brenda became the advertising face of Quaker Oats. She was also a guest on the Ed Sullivan show in the USA. Backstage she met another guest, Elvis Presley. They had a quick chat. She remembered, “He was extremely good looking.”
In 1957 Brenda was determined the swim the Channel again and break her own record. But she didn’t succeed. After 9 hours in the water and just 5 miles short of Dover, she was taken ill and had to withdraw. What made matters worse was her record was broken by somebody else.
It was time to retire. “I knew I’d had enough.” She was just 31 years old.
In her retirement she was an advocate for swimming as a sport, coaching many youngsters. She was very active in the Channel Swimming Association.
Her husband Pat died in 1971. Her sister Jessie died in 1994.
She had her own blog – ‘Blonde in Deep Water’. This was also the title of her biography.
Brenda was given the Freedom of the Borough of Grimsby. There is a blue plaque on the dockside dedicated to her, at the spot where she used to swim.
She also opened a new pontoon on Alexandra Dock on the 70th anniversary of her first channel swim.
Brenda last swam in her late eighties.
In an interview she gave advice to other people who wanted to swim the Channel. “It’s cold, it’s boring…so I suggest singing Billy Fury songs.”
When she died, the Channel swimming Association called her, “One of the true open-water pioneer swimmers of the Twentieth Century.”
There was a civic service held in Grimsby to honour her memory.
RIP – Recordbreaker (from) Immingham Postcode