Thirty Pieces of Silver (Almost)

This picture from 1851 hanging in London’s Waterman’s Hall shows Thomas Knott, a waterman dressed in his Coat and Badge. Knott operated from Iron Gate Stairs, which is about where Tower Bridge is today.

2 May 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on some badges of honour.

On a recent visit to Waterman’s Hall, sited between London Bridge and the Tower of London, I managed to take some pictures of part of the watermen’s exquisite collection of prize badges. Highly polished silver is difficult to photograph but it is worth the effort to be able to appreciate these splendid items.

The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames was founded in 1514 and in 1780 it moved into its own purpose-built hall in St Mary at Hill, where it remains to this day. Picture: @CompanyWatermenLightermen.

The prize of a “Coat and Badge” was once a common one in boat races for working watermen. The coat originates from the livery worn by the men who were retained by the wealthy and aristocratic to row their personal barges in the days when traveling by water was safer, quicker, and more comfortable than journeys on poor roads. In a time when most people possessed only one or perhaps two suits of clothing (possibly inherited), the prize of a new, well-made, colourful outfit was a fabulous thing. 

A functional licence badge or “brassard” of base metal worn from 1824 by Henry Scarlett of Limehouse showing that he was a free waterman and had the number 6363. Picture: National Maritime Museum.

The arm badge started as the simple base metal licence used to show that the bearer was an apprentice served and free waterman or lighterman, allowed to carry people or goods on the river. From this prosaic beginning, the badges developed into prizes and became pieces of art fashioned from silver. Many do not survive as they were used as “pensions” to be melted down when the bearer was unable to work. 

The Thames National Regatta, 1871.
The Thames Regatta, 1844.
The Robbins Badge, 1851.
The 37th Watermen’s Apprentice Annual Regatta, 1855.
Greenwich Regatta, The Second Dreadnought Coat and Badge, 1931.
All Saints Poplar and Blackwell Second Annual Apprentices Regatta, 1867.
Mr Lock’s Coat and Badge, 1877.
St Mary’s, Rotherhithe, Coat and Badge, 1832.
London RC, 1903.
Kingston, 1912.
City of London, Southwark and Lambeth, 1866.
Tower Bridge, 1894.
The Deptford Apprentices’ Annual Regatta, 1861.
129th Richmond Watermen’s Royal Regatta, 1904.
134th Richmond Watermen’s Royal Regatta, 1909.
Westminster, 1869.
City of London, 1874.
The Old Horselydown City of London Regatta, 1899.
Woolwich and Charlton Watermen’s Apprentices Grand Annual Regatta, 1882.

Apart from the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, the races regularly offering such an expensive prize had died out by the late 1930s. However, below is a reminder of some “living” Coat and Badge prizes and uniforms of office.

Pictured in 2014, from left to right: Mark Hunter (Millennium Race), Scott Neicho (Watermen’s Bargemaster), Jeremy Randall (then Master of the Company), Alfie Anderson (Watermen’s 500 Race), Harry McCarthy (2014 Doggett’s), Chris Anness (2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Race). Picture: Susan Fenwick.
Six Bargemasters at Vintners’ Hall in 2019. Picture: Paul Prentice and Steve O’Connor.

One comment

  1. Can anyone identify the impressive building depicted on the badge for the Old Horselydown City of London Regatta? Horselydown was the name of a district on the south bank of the Thames, around what is now the southern end of Tower Bridge. One would have thought that the building would have been either in the City of London or in Horselydown but I can’t think of anywhere that fits the bill.

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