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.
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’).
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.
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 If one looks beyond that fact that the prize for the winner is a Waterman’s costume that was out-of-date 200 years ago, the Coat and Badge Race has always adapted to change.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.
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.
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.
Remember, you can watch the race online at http://www.doggettsrace.org.uk from 11.30 on Saturday, 1 August.