The 306th Doggett’s: History on Hold

Every winner of the Doggetts Coat and Badge Race receives a tailor-made scarlet costume modelled on the outfit of an 18th-century waterman – complete with an elaborate arm badge of solid silver. Also pictured here is, in the gown, the 2018 Master of the Watermen’s Company, Iain Reid. Next to him, in blue, is the Company Bargemaster, Robert Coleman. On the right is Mark Hunter in a Millennium Coat and Badge. Picture: Watermen’s Company/Twitter.

1 March 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is waiting for history to repeat itself.

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. When Thomas Doggett instituted his eponymous race in 1715, he stated that it was to be held ‘on the first day of August forever’. More than 300 years later, the exact date has proven 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 7,400-metre race from London Bridge to Chelsea 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 Second World War meant that there was no racing for the Coat and Badge between 1940 and 1946 and the eight postponed races were held over two days in 1947. COVID-19 delayed the 2020 race, the 306th, originally scheduled for 3 September 2020, and it was planned to be held on 16 March 2021. Now, the Watermen’s Company has decided to postpone the 2020 Race again as lockdown restrictions make training impossible and would not allow the race to take place, even ‘behind closed doors’:

Pending a further government announcement on the easing of restrictions we have now decided to postpone the 2020 Race once again until a date to be determined, between 1 June and 31 July. This will give the competitors due notice once training is allowed to recommence, without bringing undue pressure on those wishing to race in the 2021 Wager, which is still scheduled for 8 September…. It is with great pleasure that we can confirm Harold Pinchbeck Watchmakers will continue to support the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager throughout 2021.

There were no problems in holding the 1928 Doggetts, eventually won by John Leslie Phelps, then the seventh member of his family to win the race. In the following ten years, three more of John’s relatives would win the coveted Coat and Badge.

There are four entries for the 2020 Race, whenever it may be. One hopeful is James Berry who competed in 2019 when he put in a strong performance and came second to the more experienced Patrick Keech. In an interview on the Watermen’s Company website, Berry said:

I’ve been rowing since 2018, and I started because I wanted to compete in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager. 

The conditions [in 2019] were awful which made it a really tough race. I had to just stay focused, and keep pushing. I wasn’t worried that I wasn’t ahead from the start – I knew I had a strong second half of the race, and there were a couple of points where I really felt I could have overtaken Patrick. In the end I came second – I’m proud of that race, but I will do better this time…. 

James Berry (in blue) battles with Patrick Keech (in red) in the 2019 Doggett’s.

[Training during lockdown] has been hard – especially trying to keep motivated when we couldn’t get out on the water. I bought a rowing machine so I could keep training… It’s tough, but my priority right now is rowing. I want to win the Wager for myself, and to create a legacy for my family. And you only get a few chances.

‘The Race for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge’ by Thomas Rowlandson, 1805. For most of Doggett’s long history, newly qualified watermen could only compete in their first year of ‘freedom’. In 1988, declining apprentice numbers made it necessary to allow unsuccessful competitors to compete up to three times (up to the age of 27) in order to keep the number of entries credible, a change that has been very successful.

On 23 February, the Government published its four-step plan to ease England’s lockdown, one that could see all legal limits on social contact lifted by 21 June if strict conditions are met. Following this, British Rowing put its plan for a return to rowing on its website. On 8 March, the government’s ‘Step 1a’ will see little change for rowing; club facilities remain closed but single household crews will be allowed out for personal exercise only. However, on 29 March at the earliest, ‘Step 1b’ will allow both crew rowing (subject to COVID-Secure protocols) and minimum club facilities to enable COVID-Secure boating. British Rowing says that by ‘Step 4’ (no earlier than 21 June) ’we expect that the rowing community will be fully operational following COVID-Secure protocols’. Thus, it seems likely that the Doggett’s Coat and Badge for 2020 will take place sometime between 21 June and 31 July.

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