13 September 2018
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch balances camera, notebook and glass of wine.
I recently wrote about The World’s Oldest Boat Race Exhibition currently on display on the South Bank of the Thames outside the Tate Modern Art Gallery. I noted that it was part of September’s Totally Thames Festival, a month long, multi-event celebration of London’s river. The organisers say:
As part of Totally Thames 2018, the traditions and stories of the (Doggett’s Coat and Badge) will be explored through a series of outdoor exhibitions. Using recorded oral histories, photographic portraits, and 100 years of archive material made publicly accessible for the first time, ‘The World’s Oldest Boat Race’ exhibition brings to life this hidden history at the heart of London.
Although the exhibition on the South Bank has been open since 18 August, the setting up of a duplicate show in Guildhall Yard on 10 September provided an opportunity for its official opening and to gather together the many people who contributed in some way to the project.
I picked up two interesting pieces of gossip from a couple of senior Doggett’s men while circulating among the canapes. One of them told me that he has written to the Watermen’s Company suggesting that Doggett’s should be raced in more stable craft than the current conventional racing boats. Historically, the race has used several different types of boats, including the original passenger wherries, ‘clinker gigs’, and ‘modified best boats’. His reasoning is that this would encourage more newly qualified watermen to enter – though he admitted that the idea is unlikely to be taken up.
The second conversation was connected to Britain leaving the European Union (EU). In 2007, the EU decided that the traditional Thames Waterman’s apprenticeship was too restrictive and transferred the granting of boatmasters’ licences from the Watermen’s Company to the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The Watermen believe that the much shorter MCA course does not teach the high degree of local knowledge that they say is required on the Thames. With Brexit, there is now a move to restore the status quo (however, the Government is probably concerned with broader EU issues at present).
I had a splendid conversation with John Skelton, a retired waterman who had his one chance at Doggett’s 56 years ago. I reproduce our talk here as an example of one of many hundreds of such stories that must have existed in that room:
I raced Doggett’s in 1962, coming fifth [out of six]. It was a dreadful year, we rowed over the tide all the way. Everyone went inside [the south-side moored barges at Blackfriars], but I thought ‘no, I’m not going to do that, the barges might be on the ground, they may not get by’. So, I stayed out in the middle – big mistake. When I got to the end of the [moored barges], nearly all of them had beaten me out… If the barges had been on the ground, they would have had to turn around and come back again and I would have been away. The winner was a very good friend of mine, Charlie Dearsley, he was a top sculler, he won the Wingfield’s [the English Amateur Sculling Championship] that year…
I was Captain of Poplar, Blackwell and District from 1963 to 1972…. I wrote about rowing for the East London Advertiser – they had nothing else to write about!
Both sides of my family were watermen… My [maternal great-grandmother’s] uncle, John Messenger, won Doggett’s in 1862 [There were 40 entries for Doggett’s in the year – TK]…. We have a great-aunt who rowed in the 1912 Women’s Championship, Annie Brady, just losing to Lucy Pocock.
A little bit of history was made at the reception as it was the first time that the only two women to have competed for the Coat and Badge have ever met. Claire raced in 1992 and came third out of five (including the man who capsized and failed to finish). Kate raced in 1998 (fifth out of six), 1999 (fifth out of five), and 2000 (third out of four).
The three locations for the World’s Oldest Boat Race Exhibition are/will be:
Riverside Walkway, Queens Walk, London SE1 (by Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge), Saturday, 18 August – Sunday, 30 September.
Guildhall Yard, Gresham St, London EC2, Saturday, 8 – Monday, 24 September.
Aboard the catamaran, Tornado Clipper, Tuesday, 28 – Saturday, 30 September.