Doggett’s Day

A long past race for the ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge’.
A long past race for the ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge’.

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.

Wearing his ‘Coat and Badge’, Louis Pettipher, the 2015 winner, with the competitors for the 2016 Race. From left to right: Ben Folkard (24), Perry Flynn (23), Jake Berry (23), George McCarthy (21), Alfie Anderson (22).
Wearing his ‘Coat and Badge’, Louis Pettipher, the 2015 winner, with the competitors for the 2016 Race. From left to right: Ben Folkard (24), Perry Flynn (23), Jake Berry (23), George McCarthy (21), Alfie Anderson (22).

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.

The course and suggested viewing points.
The course and suggested viewing points.

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 2016 competitors pictured at Fishmongers’ Hall on 17 June when they drew lots for stations. Left to right: Anderson, Berry, Flynn, McCarthy, Folkard. They are in front of a portrait of Herbert Clark, the 1948 winner. Picture: @TidewayLondon.
The 2016 competitors pictured at Fishmongers’ Hall on 17 June when they drew lots for stations. Left to right: Anderson, Berry, Flynn, McCarthy, Folkard. They are in front of a portrait of Herbert Clark, the 1948 winner. Picture: @TidewayLondon.

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.

In the centre is George McCarthy, who will race his first Doggett’s on 20 July. He is pictured at Waterman’s Hall on 11 July following his formal admission into the Company after completing his apprenticeship. He is the competitor with genes on his side. On his right is a cousin, Harry, who won Doggett’s in 2014, and on his left is an uncle, Simon, who won in 1984. Another uncle, Jeremy, won in 1992. Simon is in the robes of the Junior Warden of the Company – though two days later he became the Senior Warden.
In the centre is George McCarthy, who will race his first Doggett’s on 20 July. He is pictured at Waterman’s Hall on 11 July following his formal admission into the Company after completing his apprenticeship. He is the competitor with genes on his side. On his right is a cousin, Harry, who won Doggett’s in 2014, and on his left is an uncle, Simon, who won in 1984. Another uncle, Jeremy, won in 1992. Simon is in the robes of the Junior Warden of the Company – though two days later he became the Senior Warden.

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’.

Berry in training. The water on Wednesday may not be as benign. Picture: @KSCBC.
Berry in training. The water on Wednesday may not be as benign. Picture: @KSCBC.

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.

This picture from November 2014 shows Alfie Anderson, third from the right, in his 500th Anniversary Coat and Badge. Others from left to right are: Mark Hunter in the Millennium Coat and Badge (one each were given to the pair who won the double sculls event held to mark the year 2000), Scott Neicho in the Waterman’s Bargemaster’s uniform, Jeremy Randall (the Master of the Company), Alfie Anderson, Harry McCarthy winner of the 2014 Doggett’s, and Chris Anness in the 2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee race prize costume. Picture: Susan Fenwick.
This picture from November 2014 shows Alfie Anderson, third from the right, in his 500th Anniversary Coat and Badge. Others from left to right are: Mark Hunter in the Millennium Coat and Badge (one each were given to the pair who won the double sculls event held to mark the year 2000), Scott Neicho in the Waterman’s Bargemaster’s uniform, Jeremy Randall (the Master of the Company), Alfie Anderson, Harry McCarthy winner of the 2014 Doggett’s, and Chris Anness in the 2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee race prize costume. Picture: Susan Fenwick.
 At the Waterman’s ‘Court of Admissions’ on 11 July, the three Doggett’s first-timers, McCarthy, Berry and Anderson, were admitted as ‘Freemen of the Company by Servitude’ along with six others who also had just completed their apprenticeship. Here Alfie Anderson displays his certificate. There will be more on this ceremony in a future HTBS post.
At the Waterman’s ‘Court of Admissions’ on 11 July, the three Doggett’s first-timers, McCarthy, Berry and Anderson, were admitted as ‘Freemen of the Company by Servitude’ along with six others who also had just completed their apprenticeship. Here Alfie Anderson displays his certificate. There will be more on this ceremony in a future HTBS post.

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.

Ben Folkard at the 2015 Wager.
Ben Folkard at the 2015 Wager.

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.

Perry Flynn preparing to race in 2015.
Perry Flynn preparing to race in 2015.

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 start of Doggett’s in 1910. The picture was posted on Facebook by Rob Cottrell.
The start of Doggett’s in 1910. The picture was posted on Facebook by Rob Cottrell.
The start of Doggett’s in 2013.
The start of Doggett’s in 2013.
Who will own the 302nd badge?
Who will own the 302nd badge?

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.

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