Last Friday, 15th July, it was time for the annual Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race on the River Thames in London. HTBS’s Tim Koch was there and here is his report:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British like to combine sport with wearing archaic clothing and drinking alcohol. The 297th Doggett’s Coat and Badge proved no exception. My report on last year’s race explains the origins and organisation of this little known and unique event, the oldest continuously held sporting event in Britain. Put simply, it is a 7,400-metre sculling race between London Bridge and near Albert Bridge, open only to those who have completed a waterman’s apprenticeship (thus qualifying them to work on the river) in the preceding few years. The winner receives the bright scarlet costume of an eighteen-century waterman with a large silver badge on the arm.
I was lucky enough to be able to view the race from the press launch and my thanks to the ever efficient Sandra Watts at Waterman’s Hall and to Ted Manning of the Fishmongers’ Company for arranging this. Confusingly, the Fishmongers run an event that one would expect the Watermen to be in charge of. The historical reason for this was that the Watermen could not be trusted with Thomas Doggett’s legacy, it was feared that they would take it down to the pub and spend it. My thanks also go to Waterman Nick Beasley for introducing me to many former winners.
At the traditional post race meeting place, the invitingly named ‘Hung Drawn and Quartered’ pub near the Tower of London, I spoke to some of the people involved. First, the 2011 winner, Christopher Anness:
The conditions today were good, there was quite a lot of tide behind us, but it was rougher than I thought it would be. Everyone prepared their boats well and I thought it was a true test of our waterman’s skills…. it was a good battle. My race plan was to start quite quickly and then relax and enjoy it…. I knew that I’ve put the miles in and I’ve put the effort in…. and then push after Parliament, in the second half of the race…. I had a really good start…. I was about a length up by Cannon Street Bridge (300 metres). Everyone was taking their own course. I had a good pace through to Blackfriars Bridge (1,100 metres) and everyone was close there, all the boys did well. We all got to Waterloo Bridge (1,900 metres) in good shape, some of us went inside Coin Street Moorings, some outside, it did not seem to make a time difference today…. In the second half of the race Merlin [Dwan] and I opened up a gap and we held our positions from then on…. no one gave up, that was the best thing. The time was 24 minutes and 10 seconds, I think the verdict was three or four lengths. My Dad, Gary, won in his first year (out of apprenticeship) in 1982. Both sides of my family have always worked on the river. I’ve done a six year apprenticeship and this is my first attempt and it’s great, really good fun….. I’ve had a lot of coaching but my dad is the main one…. he’s helped me so much….I’m competing tomorrow [16th July] in the National Rowing Championships in the lightweight single and lightweight quad (for London RC)…. but this (the Doggett’s) is important, this is what I wanted to do.
Next, I spoke to Merlin Dwan, the man who came a close second and who had the added pressure of coming from a family with four living Doggett’s winners.
It’s a 7,400-metre race so it’s down to whoever wants it most or whoever gives up first. Today has been one of those races where Chris [Anness] and I have fought the whole way and it’s been a good, powerful race. But I lost. Chris is a really good man, we’ve grown up together…., my dad and his dad have been best friends for years….. we both live and train at London Rowing Club…. I had a blinding race but (Chris) was just that bit better than me, he deserves it… There was no way that I was going to give it to him though, I kept looking and looking, at one point he was six, seven lengths ahead of me…. but I just went for it…. These days you have three chances at the Doggett’s so I’ll defiantly be back next year….
The man with one of the best views of the race was Chas Newens, who drove the umpire’s launch. Chas has been doing this for the various events including the Doggett’s, the Wingfield Sculls and the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race for many years so he knows what he is talking about.
Today, the weather was absolutely wonderful and we were well on time….. As predicted, the two boys, Merlin Dwan and Chris Anness, were away, followed by Dan Alloway and then the other competitors (Stuart Coleman, Ben McCann and Jack Clark). All of them performed well… without ALL the competitors you would not have this special race… OK, you will have those who, for their own reasons, have been sculling for a long time in a lot of races, they know the tactics……, whereas the others work afloat and put their name up for Doggett’s. The whole race was first-class and I do not think that anybody was upset by the result, they all did their best and that’s the most important thing….
Finally I spoke to Nick Beasley (Doggett’s winner 2001 and current Watermen’s Bargemaster) for his view.
A fantastic, well fought race…. (Anness and Dwan) steered well, the conditions were reasonable apart from the wind, a good flood tide…. We have not seen a race like that since 1973 when Bobby Prentice broke the course record. We were 48 seconds away from that today, so it shows the class of the 2011 race. Bobby Lupton, who came second to Bobby Prentice in 1973, went onto win it in 1974 and I think Merlin (Dwan) will do the same in 2012.
Mixing with competitors past and present, winners and losers, their parents and grandparents, siblings and friends, wives and girlfriends, I had a small glimpse into the remnants of a world that was once commonplace but that today has almost vanished. This is a world where ordinary families lived, worked and played together for generations. This is easy to over-romance as, historically, the waterman’s world was one of uncertain, backbreaking work with little chance of advancement. Nevertheless, I left the pub feeling slightly jealous of those I left inside, drinking, joking and reminiscing. This is a club that most of us are not eligible to join, one which we can only look in on from the outside. Some people talk about getting more publicity for the event, but I doubt that the outside world would ever see beyond the archaic costume and really understand the wonderful heritage that the Watermen and their families have, a heritage that is most clearly expressed in the annual race for Thomas Doggett’s ‘Coat and Badge’.
Above on the right: Clark and Alloway find solace in defeat.