Preview: Doggett’s 300

Pic 1. Part of the prize for winning the Doggett’s Coat and Badge sculling race, a silver arm badge. It shows the running white horse, the symbol of King George I’s House of Hanover, and the inscriptions ‘Liberty’ and ‘The gift of Thomas Doggett, the late famous comedian’ – plus the name of the winner of that particular badge. Doggett instigated the race in 1715 in celebration of George’s ascension to the throne and the securing of a Protestant line of succession.
Part of the prize for winning the Doggett’s Coat and Badge sculling race, a silver arm badge. It shows the running white horse, the symbol of King George I’s House of Hanover, and the inscriptions ‘Liberty’ and ‘The gift of Thomas Doggett, the late famous comedian’ – plus the name of the winner of that particular badge. Doggett instigated the race in 1715 in celebration of George’s ascension to the throne and the securing of a Protestant line of succession.

Tim Koch writes:

Saturday, 1 August 2015 will see a race for six single scullers take place between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. The event has peculiar entry qualifications, unrelated to rowing skills and achievements, and this restricts potential competitors to a tiny number of young men and women (though, thus far, there has only ever been one female entrant). The best of the six are of a good club standard and none of them are widely known in the rowing world. In theory, it should not be an occasion that merits much interest – but it does. This contest, the strangely named ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager’, is celebrating its 300th year and its 301st race. It is one of the oldest sporting events in the world and is certainly the oldest rowing event.

Pic 2a. Terry Evever, winner of Doggett’s in 2008. The coat was originally ‘Protestant Orange’ but I suspect it changed to scarlet for the rather prosaic reason that the red material used for British army tunics was cheaper and easier to find.
Terry Evever, winner of Doggett’s in 2008. The coat was originally ‘Protestant Orange’ but I suspect it changed to scarlet for the rather prosaic reason that the red material used for British army tunics was cheaper and easier to find.

I have previously written about the history and organisation of Doggett’s in my reports on the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 races or ‘wagers’ (from the archaic use meaning ‘an ancient form of trial by personal combat between parties or their champions’).

Pic 2b. The competitors head for the start of the 2013 race.
The competitors head for the start of the 2013 race.

Briefly, for those who have not heard of it, ‘Doggett’s’ is a single sculling race of 4.6 miles/7400 metres, only open to those under 26 who have finished the long apprenticeship to become Watermen and Lightermen. Historically, qualified Watermen and Lightermen are the only people allowed to carry passengers and goods on the Thames. While the race is only open to certain members of their ancient trade guild, the Watermen’s Company, for historical reasons it is organised by an even older guild, the Fishmongers’ Company.

Pic 2c. A painting of the first winner of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1715. Historian Robert Cottrell holds that he is John Obey. His researches can be read here.
A painting of the first winner of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1715. Historian Robert Cottrell holds that he is John Obey. His researches can be read here.
Pic 3a. Merlin Dwan on his way to winning the 2012 race. He is pictured approaching Blackfriars Railway Bridge, one of the thirteen spans of the Thames that modern competitors have to negotiate. The early races had only two bridges to contend with.
Merlin Dwan on his way to winning the 2012 race. He is pictured approaching Blackfriars Railway Bridge, one of the thirteen spans of the Thames that modern competitors have to negotiate. The early races had only two bridges to contend with.
Pic 3b. Five members of the Dwan family who have won Doggett’s. Merlin (2012) is in the front with (left to right) Nicolas (2002), Kenny (1971), John (1977) and Robert (2004). Picture: British Rowing.
Five members of the Dwan family who have won Doggett’s. Merlin (2012) is in the front with (left to right) Nicolas (2002), Kenny (1971), John (1977) and Robert (2004). Picture: British Rowing.

Any event that has been around for 300 years, such as Doggett’s, will have had to adapt to changing times to survive. If one looks beyond that fact that the prize for the winner is a Waterman’s costume that was out-of-date 200 years ago, the Coat and Badge Race has always adapted to change. Perhaps the Fishmongers’ can be given credit for this as they do not have quite the same unyielding emotional commitment to the race as the Watermen probably do. To give some examples of change, the boats used in the early races were heavy wherries used to carry three or four passengers but over the years the rules have been altered several times to adapt to the changes in boat design and to keep the event as fair and as open as possible. At first, Doggett’s was raced upstream against the strongest tide in a test of power and endurance, perhaps taking two hours to compete the course, but as the volume of river traffic increased it became necessary to race on the flood, just after the turn of tide. Originally lots were drawn for the six available places (perhaps eliminating the best by chance) but since 1873 trial heats at Putney have been run when necessary. Once ‘fouling’ by a competitor (or even his supporters) against an opponent was accepted by tough men as part of a tough game but clearly this is no longer acceptable. Until 1988 only those watermen in the first year out of their apprenticeship were allowed just one attempt at winning. However, to maintain the credibility of the race as the number of those training to be watermen decreased, this rule was relaxed and unsuccessful competitors are permitted to return and compete again in their second or third years of freedom, subject to a maximum age of 26 on the day of the race. In recent times there has been a suggestion that the race reverse its traditional direction and that it should start in distant Chelsea and finish in central London outside Fishmongers’ Hall, thus making the event more ‘spectator friendly’. This idea has been greeted unenthusiastically in some quarters.

Pic 4. The poster for the 1974 race was in traditional style.
The poster for the 1974 race was in traditional style.
Pic 5. The 2015 poster is a little more modern, with a picture taken on the ‘London Eye’. On the left is Simon McCarthy, winner in 1984, one of three members of his family to win the Coat and Badge.
The 2015 poster is a little more modern, with a picture taken on the ‘London Eye’. On the left is Simon McCarthy, winner in 1984, one of three members of his family to win the Coat and Badge.

Recent times have seen the introduction of sponsorship by Thames Tideway Tunnel and others – though thankfully branding has been kept low key. A website has existed since 2011 and a Twitter account since 2012. This year will see a couple of innovations. There will be a live video stream accessible via the website and the winner’s presentation will not take place as usual at the finish on Cadogan Pier but back at the start, outside Fishmongers’ Hall by London Bridge. The race starts at 11.30 and the prize giving should take place around 1.15.

Pic 6a. Six weeks before the 2015 race, the competitors met at Fishmongers’ Hall to draw for colours and stations. From the left, Dom Coughlin, Charlie Maynard,  Louis Pettipher, Frankie Ruler, Perry Flynn and Ben Folkard. Of the four who have raced Doggett’s before, in 2014 Folkard came 4th and Pettipher 2nd and both in 2013 and 2014 Maynard came 3rd and Coughlin led from the rear.
Six weeks before the 2015 race, the competitors met at Fishmongers’ Hall to draw for colours and stations. From the left, Dom Coughlin, Charlie Maynard, Louis Pettipher, Frankie Ruler, Perry Flynn and Ben Folkard. Of the four who have raced Doggett’s before, in 2014 Folkard came 4th and Pettipher 2nd and both in 2013 and 2014 Maynard came 3rd and Coughlin led from the rear.
Pic 6b. A picture from 2012, Dan Alloway draws for his colour and station.
A picture from 2012, Dan Alloway draws for his colour and station.
Pic 7. A graphic from the sponsors showing the competitor’s stations, colours and biographies (as all HTBS pictures, click to enlarge).
A graphic from the sponsors showing the competitor’s stations, colours and biographies (as all HTBS pictures, click to enlarge).
Pic 8. The winner’s coat and breeches are tailor-made for him. Here the 2013 winner, Nathaniel Brice, is measured for size. Picture: Twitter.
The winner’s coat and breeches are tailor-made for him. Here the 2013 winner, Nathaniel Brice, is measured for size. Picture: Twitter.

I am not sure how I have missed it until now but in 2012 sponsors Thames Tideway Tunnel and the Fishmongers’ Company posted a wonderful twelve-minute video on the Internet about that year’s race. Two things about it particularly delighted me. One was the on-boat cameras that give a view of the race that was virtually impossible to record until recently. The other was the footage of the presentation of the winner to the Prime Warden (the head of the governing body of the Fishmongers’ Company) at the grand dinner held in Fishmongers’ Hall in November. I have never seen pictures, still or moving, of this great occasion before.

Below are some screenshots that I have taken from the video. They are technically poor but they still convey the grandeur and splendour of the ceremony.

Pic 9. In 2012 the guests of honour were HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh (a former Prime Warden) and HRH, The Princess Royal (Princess Anne). Here, the Princes Royal and the Prime Warden, Lord Phillimore, ascend the stairs to the Banqueting Hall.
In 2012 the guests of honour were HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh (a former Prime Warden) and HRH, The Princess Royal (Princess Anne). Here, the Princes Royal and the Prime Warden ascend the stairs to the Banqueting Hall.
Pic 10. The Princess Royal stops to talk to that year’s winner, Merlin Dwan.
The Princess Royal stops to talk to that year’s winner, Merlin Dwan.
Pic 11. To a fanfare of trumpets, the Clerk and the Bargemaster of the Fishmongers’ Company, the winner and some past winners (in this case four other Dwans) march into the Banqueting Hall.
To a fanfare of trumpets, the Clerk and the Bargemaster of the Fishmongers’ Company, the winner and some past winners (in this case four other Dwans) march into the Banqueting Hall.
Pic 12. The procession faces the top table.
The procession faces the top table.
Pic 13. The Fishmongers’ Clerk (the CEO) describes the race in Homeric style. The Prime Warden congratulates the winner and drinks his health in the winner’s cup.
The Fishmongers’ Clerk (the CEO) describes the race in Homeric style. The Prime Warden congratulates the winner and drinks his health in the winner’s cup.
Pic 14. The winner is escorted out again in triumph and to the strains of the Trumpet Voluntary.
The winner is escorted out again in triumph and to the strains of the Trumpet Voluntary.

Remember, you can watch the race online at http://www.doggettsrace.org.uk from 11.30 on Saturday, 1 August.

One comment

  1. My grandfather Wallis George Radley, proprietor of V Radley and sons boatbuilders, on the Lea in NE London, completed a watermens apprenticeship under one of the famous Phelps family in the early 20th century.

    However, he did not compete in the Doggetts. I assume he was eliminated in a qualifying race.

    In the 1950s his son Sid Radley, my uncle, built 6 wooden scullers for the Doggetts races. One that I am aware of is now the J Hopper and was repaired and restored by Roger Bean.

    Thank you to Chris Dodd and Roger Bean for helping to clarify where the J Hopper came from and how it came to be owned by Hexam rowing club where Roger used to be a member as was Jack Hopper the NE professional sculler from the early 20th century.

    Also thank you to Chris for putting Roger Bean in touch with me when Roger had just purchased the J Hopper was first investigating where it came from and who built it. This helped with both my and Chris’s recent books.

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