Hoy! News From Watermen’s Hall

The world’s oldest continuously run rowing race, the “Doggett’s Coat and Badge’’ was instituted in 1715 as an event for up to six men who had just finished the long apprenticeship to be allowed to row people on the River Thames. This badge was won by George Staples in 1825 and is possibly the earliest surviving example. Picture: Matt Brown.

30 July 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on coat, badge and facemask.

When Thomas Doggett instituted his eponymous race in celebration of the accession of King George I, he stated that it was to be held ‘on the first day of August forever’. More than 300 years later, the exact date has proved to be something of a movable feast but the ‘forever’ part has been held true to the founder’s wishes – even if a little manipulation has been required. The race was run annually from 1715 until the First World War intervened. There were no races 1915 – 1919 but, in 1920, six races were run over two days for those who had finished their apprenticeships in the missing years.

“The Times” preview of the 1920 Doggett’s races.
The “Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News” report on the results of the six Doggett’s races that were held in 1920 to maintain the continuity of the event.
Doggett’s recovered quickly after its wartime hiatus. The inter-war years were particularly good for the Phelps family who won seven of their ten Doggett’s races in that period. Shown here are two images of Dick Phelps who won in 1923. On the left is part of a portrait painted in the 1920s by James Dring and on the right is a photograph taken in 1987 by John Shore.
The Second World War meant that there was no racing for the Coat and Badge between 1940 and 1946. “The Times” previewed the eight postponed races that were held over two days in 1947 but, in a sign of journalistic things to come, it did not report on the final results.

Predictably, 2020 will see the first peacetime postponement of Doggett’s. Originally scheduled for 3 September 2020, the pandemic and consequent restrictions have meant that the competitors cannot train sufficiently. The proposed date for the 2020 Doggett’s is now 16 March 2021, with a second race held on 8 September 2021 for that year’s contest. The Watermen’s Company says that ‘Apprentices will be invited to enter the appropriate race or may qualify to compete in both’.

Patrick ‘Paddy’ Keech (left), Doggett’s winner in 2019, will now be the ‘reigning champion’ for two years. Here Keech is congratulated by the 2018 winner, Alfie Anderson.
The 2015 Doggett’s reaches Westminster. Regretfully, there will be no scenes like this in 2020 but the 2018 race can be re-lived by watching the wonderful documentary commissioned and produced by the Thames Festival Trust.

The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames was founded in 1514 when the earliest Act of Parliament for regulating watermen, wherrymen and bargemen was passed. The Company is governed by a Court of Assistants, led by the Master and four Wardens, who are elected annually by the Court.

Watermen’s Hall dates from 1780. Picture: @CompanyWatermenLightermen.

The Company installed its 194th Master on 8 July 2020 at Watermen’s Hall, an occasion that made two pieces of history. For the first time the ceremony was held partly with the Master and some Wardens physically present and observing social distancing but with the rest of the Court watching on Zoom. Further, the new Master is Gina Blair, the first woman to be elected to the post in the Company’s 506 years.

Gina Blair, Master of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. Picture: @CompanyWatermenLightermen.
From left to right: Derek Mann (Senior Warden), Gina Blair (Master), Ted Gradosielski and Annamarie Phelps (Junior Wardens). Sir David Wootton (absent) will also be a Junior Warden.  Picture: @CompanyWatermenLightermen.

Here are a few more interesting Watermen related items that I have recently gathered from the Internet.

A rare Coat and Badge. Picture: @CompanyWatermenLightermen.
A January 2020 Tweet from the London Borough of Lambeth on some worthy restoration work. Picture: @LambethArchives
The header for ‘Waterman Hoy’, the Watermen’s Company quarterly newsletter, is in the form of a backboard from a waterman’s skiff. Editions of ‘Waterman Hoy’ from 2017 to 2020 are online (though a few links do not work). ‘Hoy’ is an old cry to attract attention and presumably ‘Waterman Hoy’ was the same as shouting ‘Taxi’ today. Even for those who are not members of the Company, the newsletters have some interesting stories and pictures.
A wonderful picture from the May 2019 edition of ‘Waterman Hoy’ showing six Bargemasters at Vintners’ Hall on 20 March 2019. The gathering was arranged by Paul Prentice and photographed by Steve O’Connor.
I must pair this 2014 picture of five different watermen’s coats with the one above it. From left to right: Mark Hunter (Millennium Race), Scott Neicho (Watermen’s Bargemaster), Jeremy Randall (then Master of the Company), Alfie Anderson (Waterman’s 500 Race), Harry McCarthy (2014 Doggett’s), Chris Anness (2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Race). Picture: Susan Fenwick.

Finally, eBay currently holds a Doggett’s mystery. There is for sale a competent oil on canvas painting by James Dring (who painted the Dick Phelps picture above) of what is described as a ‘portrait of a man in uniform’ but which is clearly of a Doggett’s winner.

The mystery Doggett’s Man.

As Dring died in 1985, I suspect that the painting is post-1945 and the background looks like it is ‘upriver’ on the non-tidal Thames. Does anyone know who the sitter could be?


  1. I have always wondered why the badge is worn on the sleeve and not the breast. Could it be that in the early days the winner would proudly show it off it on his arm for the whole year while rowing on the river, and the moving flash of silver made it more visible from the bank?

  2. Daniel, six or eight races in two days would be a strain for the organisers but think of the celebrations in the pub afterwards!

  3. The mystery Doggets winner is probably R G O’Dell out of lambeth. he owned tugs barges and passenger boats and the Walton boat works that was a boat builders up river.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.