At Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race
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.
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
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