19 July 2016
Tim Koch looks forward to a favourite event in his rowing calendar:
Tomorrow, on Wednesday 20 July, Sir Steve Redgrave, probably Britain’s best-known rower, will be the guest of honour at probably Britain’s least-known rowing event. This is the ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager’, actually a single sculling race of 4.6 miles/7,400 metres which is run on the Thames through the centre of London, from London Bridge to Chelsea. Except for the two World Wars, it has been held every year since 1715. The ‘Wager’ (from the old use of the word meaning trial by personal combat) is the oldest rowing event in existence. It had been going for 114 years when the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race started in 1829 and was 124 years old when Henley Regatta began in 1839. It is one of the oldest continuously held sporting competitions in the world. That such a long established event should be relatively obscure is largely due to its very restrictive entry conditions.
The race is only open to a maximum of six people under 26 who have, in the previous three years, finished the five year apprenticeship which, traditionally, was the only way to be allowed to carry goods and people on the River Thames. Three attempts at winning may be made, though previous winners may not enter again. If that were not enough of a barrier to entry, the course itself should dissuade all but the brave or the foolish, 7,400 metres of unsettled and unsuitable water containing washes, bends and currents, plus the potential to hit any of 14 bridges and numerous other unyielding objects.
Although the race is only open to particular members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, since 1722 the event has been administered by another of London’s ancient trade guilds, the Fishmongers’ Company. One theory is that the respectable Fishmongers were considered more suitable to look after the money provided by the will of the founder, Thomas Doggett, than were the Watermen. In the past, those who worked the river were considered rather roguish. Doggett instigated his Wager in celebration of George I’s ascension to the throne and the securing of a Protestant line of succession. The race originally involved heavy passenger carrying wherries sculling against the tide and with ‘fouling’ as part of the game. Start to finish could take two hours or more. Today, it is run with the tide in contemporary sculling boats and the record is just over 23 minutes.
The winner has tailor made for him a Coat and Badge, the costume of an 18th-century Waterman. This is a splendid scarlet frock coat with a large silver badge on the arm plus knee breeches, white stockings and buckled shoes – and the honour of joining a very exclusive group. The event may be obscure to the outside world but to the tight knit community of the Thames Watermen and their families, many of whom have worked the river together for generations, a Doggett’s winner is still someone special.
Apart from McCarthy, there will be two other ‘first-timers’ in this year’s race. Of Jake Berry, the pre-race publicity says that ‘despite training mostly on a lake, the infamous Tideway currents don’t faze him’. Less contentiously, ‘Jake considers race participation the correct way to end his apprenticeship’.
Strangely, the other ‘new boy’ in the 2016 Doggett’s already has a Coat and Badge, a very nice claret one. In 2014, Alfie Anderson won a special ‘one off’ Coat and Badge Race held to mark 500 years of the Waterman’s Company. I covered the event, see here. I was very impressed with Anderson’s performance in that race and, if he has been training hard in the nearly two years since then, he may be the man to beat, particularly as he says that he has been sculling since the age of 14.
Two of the 2016 competitors have raced Doggett’s before. Ben Folkard is from a family of Watermen and is certainly a contender. He was fourth in his first attempt in 2014 but last year he was part of a marvellous battle between the final three and, after the eventual winner eventually established a strong lead, Ben was involved in a gripping fight for second place – which he won.
Last year, then first-timer Perry Flynn was fifth, nearly ten minutes behind the winner. He then clearly had a lot of training to do but – and this applies to every competitor in Doggett’s – just to finish the race upright is a victory when racing over 7,400 metres of bends, swells and obstacles.
I particularly hope that Flynn learned a lesson about getting onto the start – there is no place for hesitation in a free start when the umpire is trying to align six boats on a tide. As the picture below shows, at least until the First World War, Doggett’s had a stakeout start. It would be nice if this could be reinstated.
The Doggett’s Coat and Badge, sponsored by Tideway, Harold Pinchbeck and Oarsport is on Wednesday 20 July and will start at 11 a.m. at London Bridge. Stations and colours are here. Go the Doggett’s website to watch the race streamed live from 10.45. Sir Steve will congratulate the victor in a small ceremony on the balcony at Fishmonger’s Hall at 1 p.m.
Update: Correction made that, Sir Steve will congratulate the victor in a small ceremony on the balcony at Fishmonger’s Hall, not at the Waterman’s Hall.