8 September 2018
By Chris Dodd & Tim Koch
The 304th Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager was on Tuesday, 4 September 2018. The HTBS team of Chris Dodd (text) and Tim Koch (photographs and captions) followed the race.
Doggett’s Day began like a Dog-end Day as the small press contingent assembles outside Fishmongers’ Hall to watch this year’s greyhounds go afloat. The massive edifice of the worshipful livery company’s headquarters hard by the North Bank end of London Bridge, built after the Great Fire destroyed the original in 1666, is draped in a banner advertising the oldest sporting event in the world, but the windows behind, usually emblazoned by chandeliers, are dark because the decorators are in. Well, I guess refurbishment is called for after serving 300 years’ worth of fish suppers.
Anyway, at low tide men in black, whom I’m told were trained in health and safety but who had never handled a racing boat before, descend the narrow steps outside the hall carrying sleek WinTech singles for Alfie Anderson, 23, of Poplar Blackwall and District RC, and George McCarthy, 24, of Globe RC, this year’s contestants. On water rumpled by wash from passing Clipper ferries, first Alfie and then George gingerly board their craft, secure blades into gates and paddle away towards the South Bank shelter of HMS Belfast where the umpire awaits them for a briefing.
The day is sunless dull, not quite overcast, but warm, and the water is flat. However, seen from the press rib, let alone sitting a few inches above the waterline of a fine sculling boat, the Thames is daunting and grand as the flotilla of chase boats floats about in the Pool of London, gated by Tower Bridge ‘below’ and London Bridge ‘above’, which umpire Bobby Prentice, resplendent in his burgundy Bargemaster of the Fishmongers coat and black bicorne hat, will start the five-and-a-quarter mile race on the tide to Chelsea.
Bobby is himself a winner of Doggett’s – indeed, at this moment he is the record holder, having clocked 23 minutes 22 seconds in 1973. Such a finely garbed man is looking incongruous in a rib named Garfield. He had had to board it at the last minute because the elegant launch Ariadne suffered engine failure just before the start.
As they say on University Challenge, you all know the rules so here’s your starter for ten. Bobby lowers his flag as the contestants head out of London Bridge for Cannon Street Railway Bridge. Alfie, wearing orange and on the South Bank, or Surrey side, takes the third arch of the rail bridge and is level with George, who is on the North Bank, or Middlesex station, when he emerges from the fourth arch. Southwark Bridge is next, 400 metres into the race, and Alfie suddenly has a three-length lead when he is clear of it. From then on, Doggett’s 2018 is without incident, a cruise on the flat water of an incoming tide all the way to Chelsea.
Alfie sits on his lead through the Millennium and Blackfriars road and rail bridges, past the Thames Tunnel works off the North Bank and round the big South Bank bend skirting a string of places that make living in London worthwhile. The scullers pass between shore and huddles of moored boats, past Sea Containers, IBM, the National theatre and film theatre, under Waterloo Bridge’s second arch, past the Hayward Gallery, the Elizabeth and Festival halls and the London Eye Ferris wheel to shoot Waterloo Bridge’s second arch. Here Alfie’s lead is a guessed eight lengths.
While the scullers get on with the task in their hands, I reflect on liquid history and those unto the Tideway born. When Doggett’s began in 1715, the Thames was a superhighway of commerce, royal progression and pageantry, a wide watery street bisecting Southwark and the road to the Cinque Ports on the South Bank from the cities of London and Westminster.
London Bridge, close to Billingsgate fish market, the Custom House and the Tower, was the only crossing point until you reached Kingston, miles and days away. The tideway was watermen and wherry country, boats for hire for business and pleasure. The rot for the licensed watermen – eligible to row Doggett’s only in their first year of freedom from the Company of Watermen’s apprenticeship scheme – set in when Putney Bridge opened in 1729, still a good 15 miles upstream of London Bridge.
The first bridge at Blackfriars was built by the City in 1769 in response to Westminster’s 1750 crossing point. These three – Putney, Westminster and Blackfriars, began the decline of wherry services, and the 19th-century enclosure of the commercial river into docks converted the grand highway into a giant sewer. London turned its back on its river, and steam power – on ships and rails – eventually finished off sail and oar.
Reflecting on this while passing the aptly named Waterloo, I was awoken by ships’ sirens sounding as the safety rib White Minx seems close to being run down by the spectator cruiser Sapele that is charging along in company with Sarpedon and Mercia. But the hootenanny of the big boats is more likely hoorahs for the scullers than ire at the slippery minx.
The scullers had to steer out to round the Eye and its pier, and a roar goes up from hundreds of folk aboard the London Eye River Cruise ship, moored like all the pleasure vessels along the course on command of the Port of London Authority while the Doggett’s men go past. A forest of cranes forms the backdrop to the Eye, a veritable anarchic latticework of construction seen along several stretches of the river. On the North side Big Ben’s tower and chunks of the Palace of Westminster are swathed in scaffold and plastic sheeting, facing St Thomas’s Hospital on the South Bank which, 200 years ago as the first Doggett’s passed by, would have been Searles boathouse, boat livery and rooms. Who knows, the amateur gents who manned small boats like the Star and the Arrow may have got together in that very week to merge their fortunes into Leander.
Lambeth Bridge is next up and approximately halfway, resplendent with red-painted arches and statues on the buttresses – the nearest one to the press rib being of mother and child. The river here is a huge wide boulevard of offices and apartments. Alfie leads on through Vauxhall while George takes a little scenic deviation towards Middlesex but finds no extra help from the tide on the bend towards Battersea.
From the vista approaching Grosvenor Railway Bridge, Battersea Power station could be suspended from cranes, framed by glittering glass of facades of flats. George moves back on station behind Alfie, who is now some dozen lengths ahead. Now knackered, they emerge from the white and red cables of Chelsea suspension bridge onto the home straight. A bike with a screaming George supporter whizzes along Chelsea Embankment until lost behind another vast Tideway tunnel works, complete with barges and platforms registered in Panama and Belize. There is scarce a flutter from the trees of Battersea Park on the South side, and the expanse of beach stretching to the park’s pagoda is sullied by all of three spectators.
Alfie Anderson leads George McCarthy over the finish line at Cadogan Pier, just downstream of Albert Bridge and site of the pub that served as the destination in Thomas Doggett’s day. King Edward, Viscount, Hurlingham and other steamers raise a hullaballoo. The winning time is 25 minutes 27 seconds, good but outside Bobby Prentice’s record by just over two minutes. Alfie lies down on the pier to get his breath back.
‘No offence to anyone but it was harder than I thought it was going to be’, Alfie said. ‘I probably could have trained more but I have been in intense training for the last three months. I had a lot of help from London Rowing Club, but the coach who has probably done the most for me is German Pradera Anllo from Fulham Reach Boat Club. German is a blinding coach, he really helped me with my style which I think is where I won the race…’
It is Alfie’s third and final attempt to win Doggett’s. ‘I was not too well in my first in 2016. The second year, I didn’t really train. This year, I pulled my finger out and got a result. Every now and then, you’ve got to grow up, haven’t you?’ He came to the start with a promise to fulfil. ‘I rowed for Poplar because I promised them that I would win the race for them as a kid.’
It was also George’s last eligible year. Had he won, he would have added a fourth Coat and Badge to the McCarthy family’s collection amassed by Harry, Gerry and Simon. George handles that additional pressure with spirit and dignity on Cadogan Pier.
On this occasion fishmongers and guests could not partake of the Worshipful Company’s feted fish pie back at the hall on account of the banqueting rooms being covered in dustsheets, so the pier is weighed down with VIPs to shake Alfie by the hand. Corks pop and Commodore Toby Williamson, Clerk of Fishmongers, thanks sponsors and stakeholders doggedly from his prepared script until he is drowned by the Poplar crowd on board the Hurlingham, come to witness fulfilment of their boy’s promise.
In the photo call line-up are Chris Rodrigues, chairman of the PLA, Paul Pinchbeck, who donates timepieces to Coat and Badge winners, David Robertson, Prime Warden of Fishmongers, Lucy Webster from the Thames Tideway Tunnel and Andrew Moffat representing Cadogan Pier. Also milling about are Iain Reid, Master of the Watermen with his good wife Sue, and past winners including umpire Prentice, Kenny of the Dwan Dynasty, and Jack Keech, last year’s victor.
And so Doggett’s Day concludes, leaving Alfie to make a date with his tailor and the stakeholders to contemplate its future. The twin problems of actor Thomas Doggett’s legacy that persist 300 years after his death are the low number of eligible entrants and the invisibility of the event to all but the aficionados.
To have only two runners indicates that the last big race through the city is skating on thin ice. So the challenge to the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company of the River Thames, which supply the runners and guard the tradition, and the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, which is lumbered with Thomas Doggett’s will to run the Coat and Badge in perpetuity is to ensure that there are enough qualified competitors by one means or another, and to fill Battersea Park and other bankside viewing points with interest and entertainment. Perhaps inclusion in Totally Thames’s annual festival to illuminate and publicise the stories of the river, which required this year’s move from Doggett’s traditional August date to September, is a move in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the race sponsor Thames Tideway Tunnel presumably uses Doggett’s to add glamour to its unglamorous task of boring a new sewer under the river, updating what Joe ‘Bazza’ Bazalgette built in the mid-19th century to rid London of the Big Stink that in turn contributed to professional scullers’ and amateur oarsmen’s migration to the rural waters of Putney.
My voyage behind Doggett’s in 2018 was a treat, a ‘capital experience’ cruise on a clean tideway through a city of wonder once again fronting onto the river instead of turning its back to it. It would be a great shame if the last great rowing race through the city was to peter out, or follow the Wingfields, the Boat Race and the old World sculling title races to other, perhaps lesser, waters.
Chris Dodd is the author of Unto the Tideway Born: 500 Years of Thames Watermen and Lightermen.