2 August 2016
Tim Koch has not yet finished with this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race:
This year, the media covering the Doggett’s Wager were given a surprise at the end of the race at Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. Disembarking from the press launch, one of those wonderful craft that are most commonly seen carrying umpires up and down the Henley course, we expected to get the usual ride back to the little victory ceremony at Fishmongers’ Hall on one of the big Thames Passenger Boats that followed the race. However, this year, we were directed to a couple of small military boats manned by Commandos of the Royal Engineers. Some went on what is called a ‘Combat Support Boat’ and others, including myself, volunteered for the more adventurous ‘Rigid Raider’.
Clinging to the Rigid Raider on the journey back and, being exposed to the elements, not having the usual distraction of an onboard bar, and managing to suppress any ‘Apocalypse Now’ fantasies (‘Charlie don’t scull’), I was better able to appreciate some of the historic places with a rowing connection that we passed en route – starting with the site of Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea.
The Ranelagh Regatta of 1775
Ranelagh Gardens was a very fashionable and innovative pleasure park that was famous for its concerts, balls and theatrical events. In 1775, a number of the Gentlemen’s Clubs of St James’s decided to stage an event here that would combine all of these with an amusement that some members would have seen in Venice while on The Grand Tour, a regatta*.
In The Amusements of Old London (1901), William Biggs Boulton described the scene on 23 June 1775:
The regatta….. was in itself a noble spectacle. There were certain ingenious arrangements made to secure its success…. For example, the actual day was left dependant on the weather, and was announced by the flying of a red flag from Westminster Bridge, and by the continuous ringing of the bells of St. Margaret’s from ten till one…. An incredible number of private boats then assembled at Westminster Bridge, each with its rowers dressed in one of the national colours. The reds… on Middlesex, the blues… on Surrey, while the whites occupied the middle of the stream, leaving only the central arch free. Through this arch shot a number of watermen’s wherries on a race to London Bridge and back, for which prizes of some value were given. Upon the conclusion of this race, the whole flotilla moved up the river to Ranelagh at Chelsea. The Lord Mayor and the City (Livery) Companies were present in state. There was a prodigious saluting of cannon, fine music and an execrable supper…..
While only the wealthy could afford admittance to Ranelagh Gardens, the Ball and the ‘execrable supper’, hoi polloi also joined in the fun, the masses, as always, attracted to rowing events as no admission fee could be charged:
….scaffold erections were to be seen on the banks….. Gambling tables lined the approaches to Westminster Bridge; men went about selling indifferent liquor, Regatta songs and Regatta cards. The river banks now resembled a great fair, and the Thames itself a floating town.
James Boswell was there and wrote about the day in his Life of Samuel Johnson – but he had a rather dour impression of the event:
….I dare say ’tis a good diversion where the weather invites, and the water seduces to such entertainments. Here, however, it was not likely to answer; and I think nobody was pleased.
Horace Walpole was also present, but he had more fun:
It was beautiful to see the Thames covered with boats, barges, and streamers, and every window and house-top loaded with spectators. I suppose so many will not meet again till the day of judgment, which was not to-day.
The rowing race involved only watermen and was, as William O’Chee recently wrote on HTBS, ‘between twelve pair-oared boats in three divisions, who raced for a new boat, complete with furnishings and uniforms’. Racing involved only professionals as, while a few eccentric gentlemen at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge may have been rowing for pleasure and perhaps taking part in impromptu contests, for most people in 1775, a boat race with amateur rowers would be as strange as a horse race with amateur jockeys.
In his Social History of English Rowing (1992), Neil Wrigglesworth states that after the Ranelagh Regatta ‘it became common for theatre and garden proprietors to sponsor rowing events and then promote them as part of the evening’s entertainment….. The same year, Edmund Kean joined a theatrical tradition donating a prize-wherry named Othello for a competition among seven pairs of watermen in commemoration of Garrick’s last performance…..’
The Vauxhall Grand Regatta
The architecturally challenged SIS HQ is also known as Ceausescu Towers or Babylon-on-Thames. The existence of the SIS was ‘secret’ until 1994, as was the location of its old headquarters in Mayfair, which was only known externally to taxi drivers, bus conductors and tour guides. The Thames-side site once housed Vauxhall Gardens, said by some to be a socially less exclusive version of the pleasure gardens at Ranelagh, and the ‘Vauxhall Grand Regatta’ was run from there for some years.
The Times of 29 July 1794 announced: ‘Vauxhall Regatta. The Annual Wherry, given by the proprietors of Vauxhall Gardens, will be held on Thursday next….. By Seven Pairs of Oars in uniform dress…..’ The Sporting Magazine describes an event on 6 August 1795 as ‘the contest for the annual wherry given by the Proprietors of Vauxhall by six pairs of oars in three heats’.
The river, as always in pictures such as the one above, is awash with watermen and lightermen going about their business. Unusually, this one includes two coxed fours racing each other, the crews in uniform clothing. Also, for many years there existed next to the Palace, ‘The Waterman’s House’, part of a charitable trust set up to benefit Lambeth’s Watermen. In the 18th century, the charity was administered from the Archbishop’s Palace and a newspaper of 1768 recorded, ‘Near 300 poor Watermen, Fishermen, &c. in the Parish of Lambeth, were relieved with 5s 3d (27p) each, by his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury’.
I am indebted to the 2002 edition of the magazine of Oxford’s St Catherine’s College Society for the picture above and an explanation of it. It shows three bishops, Benjamin Hoadly (Bishop of Winchester), Thomas Sherlock (Bishop of Salisbury) and Edmund Gibson (Bishop of London), sculling across the Thames from the House of Lords to Lambeth Palace. They were all rivals for the Archbishopric of Canterbury but the honour eventually went to John Potter, Bishop of Oxford. It is difficult to see in this poor copy, but Potter is already standing on one of the towers of Lambeth Palace. Gibson spots him, casts away his oars and cries, ‘Damn my Scull’. Presumably, this is a near pun on ‘Damn my Soul’. The idea of using a rowing boat or its crew as a political metaphor is a hackneyed one – but is this the first known example?
The Palace of Westminster
The Doggett’s Pub
Sited just upstream of Blackfriars Bridge, the Doggett’s pub is better to look out from than to just look at. It is seemingly designed by a graduate of the Joseph Stalin School of Architecture.
The river journey continues tomorrow with the Boat Builders of Lambeth and with Fishmongers’ Hall.
*Douglas Harper’s Etymology Dictionary: regatta. 1650s, name of a boat race among gondoliers held on the Grand Canal in Venice, from Italian (Venetian dialect) regatta, literally “contention for mastery,” from rigattare “to compete, haggle, sell at retail.” [Klein’s sources, however, suggest a source in Italian riga “row, rank,” from a Germanic source and related to English row (v.).] The general meaning of “boat race, yacht race” is usually considered to have begun with a race on the Thames by that name June 23, 1775 (see Oxford English Dictionary), but there is evidence that it was used as early as 1768.
Black Rod Steps are also important in the academic/gentleman-amateur tradition of rowing in the UK. Westminster School Boat Club predates the current Palace of Westminster, and its members officially still have the right to pass through the Palace grounds to reach their boats. Of course, the club has long since moved to Putney, but the First VIII still row down from Putney to Black Rod Steps each year and land there in order to exercise this right.