The annual ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager’ took place on 15th July on the Thames between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier, Chelsea. The organisers posted the following notice in traditional style:
The names of the four young Watermen who are to row on Thursday 15th July 2010, in the 296th Race for the Livery and Badge provided yearly under the will of the late MR. THOMAS DOGGETT, a famous Comedian, in commemoration of the happy Accession of His Majesty, George I, to the Throne of Great Britain in 1714, are:
Dean Pettipher, Gravesend RC, Green, Station 1
Charlie Ruler, Poplar, Blackwell & District RC, Yellow, Station 2
Daniel Alloway, London RC, Red, Station 3
Daniel Arnold, Tideway Scullers School, Blue, Station 4
Held every year since 1715, the generally little known Doggett’s Coat and Badge is the oldest rowing event in existence. It was 114 years old when the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race started in 1829 and 124 years old when Henley Regatta started in 1839. It is one of the oldest continuously held sporting competitions in the word.
‘Doggett’s’ is a sculling race of 4.6 miles / 7400 metres, only open to those who have, in the preceding three years, finished their apprenticeship to become Thames Watermen. These ‘Freemen’ are the only people allowed to carry goods and passengers on the river. Strangely, while ‘the Wager’ is only for members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, since 1722 the event has actually been run by the Fishmongers’ Company. One theory is that the respectable Fishmongers were considered more suitable to look after Doggett’s legacy than the roguish Watermen.
The Coat and Badge was originally a race of heavy passenger carrying wherries sculled against the tide and could take two hours. Today it is run with the tide in contemporary sculling boats and the modern record is just over 23 minutes. The winner gets a splendid scarlet coat with a large silver arm badge embossed with an image of the horse of House of Hanover - and the honour of joining a very exclusive group.
I was lucky to be able to follow the 2010 race in passenger boat charted by the Waterman’s Company. The frightening water conditions made it a true test of watermanship with every sculler having to decide between staying in the fast water in the middle of the river or going to the relative shelter, but slower water, of the sides. Afterwards I got an analysis of the race from a man who had one the best views, Charles Newens. Chas, as he is universally known, is a Past Master of the Watermen’s Company and, as the co-owner of Chas Newens Marine of Putney, has supplied and driven the umpire’s launches for many Doggett’s and Oxford – Cambridge races:
"They all got off to a good start. I suppose three of them (Arnold, Alloway and Pettipher) were quite well matched. No disrespect to Ruler (seen on the left), the weather was absolutely abominable, a head / cross wind and wind over tide, but the boys did so, so well. Arnold’s Dad had the foresight to change his sculls from cleavers (hatchets) to Macons. It’s not like a straight race…there are bends and (eleven) bridges with buttresses at different angles. When they got to Waterloo Bridge (1.8miles / 2800 metre into the race) Alloway made the mistake of going too wide while Arnold stayed in the stream. This is where he gained many lengths and was able to sit back and watch his competitors. When the water is ‘lumpy’ it is so difficult. Alloway nearly went in about ten times and Pettipher about twenty times. Alloway had a few bad shipwrecks which I think unnerved and, possibly, physically hurt him…. that’s why Pettipher passed him. But they all finished and that’s what it’s all about. It’s no shame to come second or third or fourth. We are on a great river, this is liquid gold steeped in history and it’s wonderful that the Fishmongers’ Company continue to run the event. The final result was Arnold first, Pettipher second, Alloway third and Ruler fourth."
After we came ashore, Nick Beasley (Watermen’s Bargemaster and race winner in 2001) was kind enough to take me to the ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’ pub near the Tower of London. This is the Watermen’s traditional post race meeting place and I was privileged to meet about twenty previous winners, including the latest, Dan Arnold (below on the left). He had this to say:
"It was tough. I have been following the weather for the last week and it did not look as though it was going to be fun - but everyone had the same problem. You have to be careful out there. All the way through, no matter how much I pushed and how far away I got, there was always the chance that if I had a bad stroke I could have gone in. I did not really race it as I planned; I just managed to make fewer mistakes than other people. In those circumstances it’s difficult to think clearly. I did not lead all the way. Off the start I think I was third but I have had a lot of race experience, I have been rowing since I was young, so I did not panic and got into a good rhythm. I was not going to get dropped. (A slow start) does not matter in a race as long as that… you have to pace yourself. I had confidence in myself and that’s all I needed to help me push on."
1) Arnold 30 min. 25 sec.
2) Pettipher 30 min. 48 sec.
3) Alloway 31 min. 53 sec.
4) Ruler 38 min. 05 sec.
In 1715 Thomas Doggett, announced that the race ‘…… will be continued annually……forever’. Thankfully, it looks like it will.