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 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.
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.
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.