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At Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race

July 25, 2016
by the gentle author

Sculling under London Bridge

It might have been the hottest day of the year but that was not going to stop six young apprentice watermen rowing from Southwark to Chelsea in the Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race of 2016. Held annually since 1715, this is the world’s oldest continuously-held sporting event and a fiercely-contested prize among families of watermen who have been working on the Thames for centuries.

Photographer Tom Bunning & I climbed down onto Fishmongers’ Wharf next to London Bridge to watch the apprentices carrying their skiffs over their shoulders down Fishmongers’ Steps and launching them on the river as high tide approached. On the wharf, a large board listed the contestants names and outlined their form, revealing cousins, uncles and grandfathers who had attempted this race before them.

At 10:45am HMS Belfast fired its guns, sending the seagulls into a whirl and signalling that the river was closed to traffic for the duration of the race. The six contestants lined up in their skiffs, with the Umpire’s boat close behind carrying Bobby Prentice – who holds the unbroken record for Doggett’s Coat & Badge of twenty-three minutes and twenty-two seconds in 1973 – resplendent his magnificent gold-braided outfit. Then they were off, skimming across the surface of the water like beetles, and before we knew it they had disappeared under Cannon St Bridge and away into three hundred years of history.

The origin of the race lies with Thomas Doggett, a flamboyant Irishman who became an actor-manager at the Haymarket & Drury Lane Theatres at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Acclaimed as, ‘the leading low comedian of the London stage,’ Doggett began his career performing in a booth at the notorious Bartholomew Fair in Smithfield before graduating to the West End.

The story goes that the race began as a wager in gratitude to a young waterman who rescued Doggett when he fell overboard while crossing the Thames. Doggett offered a traditional waterman’s red coat and a silver badge inscribed with a horse as a symbol of the house of Hanover and the word ‘liberty,’ to be presented to whoever could row fastest between the Swan in Southwark and the Swan in Chelsea.

Originally, the race was held each year on August 1st as a celebration of the anniversary of George I’s accession to the throne and rowed against the tide by watermen in skerries taking as long as two hours to complete the course. Doggett financed it until his death in 1721 when responsibility passed to the Fishmongers Company who have organised the event ever since. In more recent times, the race has been run with the tide and the contestants now row in single sculls. A commentator of 1864 declared, ‘This deplorable decision to go with the flow obviously marks the start of the subsequent sustained decline in the British national character.”

When we saw the contestants of 2016 disappear from view, Benjamin Folkard had already established a significant lead and it was no surprise to see him return in a motorboat an hour later as the victor. Yet this was his third attempt and he received a generous emotional greeting at Fishmongers’ Wharf from Louis Pettifer who won last year, now wearing his fine red waterman’s coat and badge. Up on the terrace of Fishmongers Hall, Sir Steve Redgrave congratulated the winner formally as dignitaries stood round and an enthusiastic cheer went up from a flotilla of corporate hospitality boats on the Thames.

Tom & I observed all this from a vantage point on London Bridge where a small crowd had formed, and a small white-haired woman confided to me that she had come to London especially to see this race which had been won by her ancestor in 1825. The river sparkled, shimmering with sunlight, and it was curious to witness such an elusive event, simultaneously so fleeting but yet so old.

Alfie Anderson

Perry Flynn

Jacob Berry

The finish of Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race at Chelsea by Thomas Rowlandson

HMS Belfast fires a gun to signal closure of the river for the race

Umpire Bobby Prentice sits in the prow

Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race, 1838

Lining up at London Bridge in 1906

T Cole, winner in 1849

Benjamin Folkard embraced by last year’s winner Louis Pettipher at Fishmongers’ Wharf

A trumpeter plays a fanfare to announce Benjamin Folkard as winner of Doggett’s Race

Doggett’s Coat & Badge Winners, 1901

Louis Pettipher presents Benjamin Folkard with champagne on the terrace of Fishmongers’ Hall

Doggett’s Coat & Badge Winners, 1960

Louis Pettipher, Benjamin Folkard, Sir Steve Redgrave

Twenty winners of Doggett’s Coat & Badge, 1905 (click to enlarge this image)

Portraits believed to be of Thomas Doggett by Thomas Murray (left)  and Johann Zoffany (right)

Plaque in Eltham churchyard – Doggett married the granddaughter of the Vicar of Eltham

Colour photographs copyright © Tom Bunning

You may also like to read about

At Fishmongers’ Hall

Bobby Prentice, Waterman & Lighterman

Old Bob Prentice, Waterman & Lighterman

Among The Lightermen

10 Responses leave one →
  1. July 25, 2016

    Thanks so much for fleshing out the back story of this legendary event. I’ve known about it intellectually for many years, but determined to make a special effort to watch this year, taking up early vantage point on the Southbank, so that the Palace of Westminster would form the backdrop for my photos. What a visual disappointment in reality! By the time the cortege or peloton, or whatever a small group of boats is called reached me (oh yes – fleet), there were only 3 skiffs plus the official boat, and if you blinked you missed it :-( Next year will be advised by you, and make for Fishmongers’ Wharf!

  2. July 25, 2016

    A well balanced blog by GA and Tom B showing old and new. I’m fascinated by the large silver armbands worn by winners a trophy indeed. Benjamin the 2016 winner looks shattered after this gruelling race, now the nice bit he has to get measured for his red outfit. Hats off to Thomas Doggett founder of the race in 1715; Tom your legacy lives on good for you. Sad that he died a pauper, managing theatres can be financially precarious perhaps this was the reason for his demise. The name Thomas Doggett is still recognized today he put the ‘show’ on the river for all to enjoy. John B

  3. Shawdian permalink
    July 25, 2016

    So nice to know this tradition still takes place on our beautiful Thames water and I feel for the rowers (that particular day was very hot with the effect of making most bodies feel as heavy as logs). A BIG Well done to all those who took part and I am sure there were many behind the scenes who like ghost are not seen and not heard as they secure this Centuries old boat race takes it’s place on the river. When I see old photographs and paintings of the Thames as it was for Centuries, full of people in their big and little boats bringing life to the waters, it brings home what a great shame the Thames is now just a tourist attraction with barely any life on it now. I used to have many walks by the Thames and my imagination would be rife with imaginings of all that I had read or seen in paintings about what had taken place on one of the most important parts of London. An excellent collection of photographs as usual Gentle
    Author. Thank you for yet another treasure, you are doing a great job and so are the people of the Thames. Let there be more old traditions.

  4. July 25, 2016

    Who makes the costume? Is there a special place that makes historical costume for these kind of events?
    x

  5. Peter Holford permalink
    July 25, 2016

    My dad was a serious rower and won loads of cups and medals including Henley. He used to row on the River Lea and in the Thames but I never remember him telling me of this. But perhaps as a kid I wasn’t listening to half of what he was saying and if I was it might not have meant anything. I seem to remember him talking about Thames Traders and Tideway Scullers but that might have been linked to my childhood near the Thames at Putney. Interesting read – has fleshed out a bit more about Dad’s youth!

  6. Malcolm permalink
    July 25, 2016

    As the son of a London Fishmonger I have a connection with Billingsgate and Fishmongers Hall. This great tradition of Doggett’s Coat and Badge race is something I’ve watched many times, although, sadly, I didn’t go this year. My cousin was a member of the Poplar and Blackwall rowing club and he used to row with Kenny Dwan who was a lighterman on the Thames and rowed in the Olympics. I’m not sure if he ever rowed in Doggett’s race but it would be quite likely.
    The Thames is the reason London exists and is the basis of the City’s fortune and from which the nation’s power was built. It might look as if the river only exists for tourists but this is not so. The river is still used every day by many working people from Tilbury docks as far as Windsor and beyond.
    Long may Doggett’s race continue.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    July 25, 2016

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, yet another fabulous piece about London and the Thames rich traditions. I agree with all that was said above. Wonderful sketches and photos of the event over the years too.

  8. pauline taylor permalink
    July 25, 2016

    I too agree with all the comments so far, this is a wonderful tradition, and I often wonder what it was like in days gone by as so many of my ancestors were watermen from the 16th to the 18th century. They plied their trade from Lambeth to Westminster at the Horseferry and on the Archbishop’s barge, so it quite likely that some of them took part in this race, maybe they even may have won who can tell!

    My grandfather, who lived beside the River Lea, was renowned for his skill in the single sculls races for which he won many prizes and I still treasure the Gladstone gold medal that he won which is inscribed with his name and the date (1895). He was a member of the Tiger Rowing and Athletic Club on the River Lea and I have a photo which shows him sitting cross legged at the front of the group of 60+ members and wearing his rowing club cap and a white sweater. I have donated a copy of this photo to Hackney Archives and I believe that it can now be seen online, well worth a look if you get a chance GA, and if anyone should know any more about the Tiger Rowing Club I hope that they will let you know.

  9. September 22, 2016

    As author of the newly published book THOMAS DOGGETT COAT & BADGE (300 years of history) I consider myself something of a history buff regards Thomas Doggett. Did he die a pauper when buried at Eltham Church (South East London), what year was he born? Why did he borrow money in 1715 and if it was to finance the annually held sculling race that still takes place today? Why borrow if he had a small fortune? Who did he marry -certainly his wife is also buried at Eltham, but who was she.

    How did Thomas Doggett manage his finances after he retired from the stage and management of the early 1700′s theatre?

    Why was there so many suicides in 1720/1721 and why did one of his closest friends have his estate taken away and sold?

    All this and more is within the new book. Plus every known competitor who was eligible to scull in the race, with reports on every race between 1715 and 2015.

    If you think you know all there is to know about Doggett, start reading the book and realise you have only been scratching the surface of Thomas Doggett.

    Check the web page http://www.trueflaregenealogy for price of the book. Available now.

    Happy reading.

  10. December 4, 2016

    It has been passed down through our family that Thomas Doggett was a relative . My great grandparents were Doggett. I don’t know how true this is but would like to know as a fact if we were related Thank you Delia Paul( maiden name) married name Parker

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