Preview: Doggett’s 303

The Coat and Badge.

22 July 2017

Tim Koch looks forward to one of rowing’s oldest and most obscure events:

Probably none of the thousands of tourists, locals and city workers who will be near the Thames in Central London just before midday on Tuesday, 25 July, will be aware that a unique piece of British history will be passing by. At 11.30 on that day, the 303rd Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager will start at London Bridge with four young scullers each aiming to be the first to arrive at Cadogan Pier in Chelsea, 4.6 miles/7,400 metres away.

From left to right: 2017 competitors Alfie Anderson and George McCarthy, 2016 winner Ben Folkard, 2017 competitors Perry Flynn and Jack Keech.

The ‘Wager’ (from the old use of the word meaning trial by personal combat) is the oldest continuously run rowing race 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.

That such a long-established event should nowadays 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.

The start in 2016.

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.

Pick your viewing point.

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 as, 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, 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.

1715: The first winner of the Doggett’s, John Obey.

The winner has a Coat and Badge, the costume of an 18th-century Waterman, tailor made for him. 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 largely unknown 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.

2016: The 302nd winner of the Doggett’s, Ben Folkard.

Although there are only four scullers competing this year, it should still be an interesting race.

George McCarthy has three Doggett’s winners in his family, two uncles and a cousin. While this must mean that he gets great advice and support, it must also add to the pressure on race day. Though he came last in his first attempt in 2016, falling back early on, he finished the course and finished it upright. In a tough event in tough conditions, that is a victory in itself.

I hope George will copy the example of Perry Flynn who, in 2016, improved greatly on his 2015 performance, sculling with much more confidence. Further, last year he took the wise decision to hug the shelter of the south bank for part of the race and he should get much credit for that. The 2017 race must be his last, but he is a great competitor, very much in the spirit of Doggett’s.

As to second-time competitor, Alfie Anderson, I quote myself in my post-race piece last year:

I was not alone in thinking that Alfie Anderson would win the 2016 Doggett’s Wager, I know that at least one other well-informed former winner thought so too. On the day, however, he came second. My prediction was based on watching him win the ‘one off’ Coat and Badge Race held in 2014  to mark the 500 years since the first Act of Parliament regulating those working on the Thames….. The race contained two scullers who were theoretically faster than Anderson but, as things turned out, one fell in and the other led almost to the line when Alfie sensed that his opponent’s fitness was failing and he made a splendid final spurt to grab victory in the last few strokes. As the winner of the ‘500’ was still an apprentice, he then had two years to prepare for his first Doggett’s, and I assumed that he would be even fitter, stronger and better in 2016 and thus a very likely winner. However, on the day, Alfie seemed to have very little fight in him from the very start. His size and his good technique assured that he would at least be second but he was not the same man that I saw winning the ‘500’ two years previously.

When Alfie came ashore at the finish, I tentatively (and probably undiplomatically) told him that I thought that he would win and that he did not seem as fit as he was two years ago. He readily agreed and rather reluctantly admitted that he had not been very well in the last few days. I certainly thought that he did not look too healthy, even allowing for the fact that he had just raced 7,400 metres. Then, in a great display of humility and sportsmanship, he added:

‘Even if I was well, I think that (Ben) would have just pipped me. He’s trained harder than me this season, he’s put the work in and when you (do this), it pays off…. So now I’ll put the work in for next year…’

If he does train and stays healthy, I find it difficult to imagine that Alfie Anderson will not be putting on the scarlet coat in 2017.

Competitors all.

I would now like to qualify that prediction slightly as I now know who the ‘new boy’ is of the four to race in 2017. Jack Keech is from a family of Watermen, his father raced twice for Doggett’s and three cousins wear the Coat and Badge. An Internet search tells me that in 2016, Jack, a member of Tideway Scullers School, a club where they know about making sculling boats move, won IM1 Lwt 1x in the Scullers Head, IM1 1x in Walton Small Boats Head, was 15th overall and third in IM2 2x in the Pairs Head, and represented England in LM2x in the Home International.

So, it should be a great contest between Anderson and Keech. Who will win….? Probably, the one who stays upright, takes the best line, does not hit anything, and goes the fastest.

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