Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tim Koch On The 2012 ‘Coat and Badge’

Merlin Dwan - winner of the 2012 Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race.

HTBS’s Tim Koch writes about this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race:

The strangest events and customs are given credibility simply by the fact that they have gone on for a long time. While this is true all over the world, Britain seems to specialise in celebrating the archaic and the eccentric. Possibly because there has been two hundred and ninety eight Doggett’s Coat and Badge Races, today’s past winners, all unpretentious, solid working men descended from generations of unpretentious, solid working men, are very happy to be seen in public wearing a costume that was first out of date two hundred years ago. Even the fact that it is bright scarlet and carries a silver arm badge the size of a dinner plate does not deter them. However, there is more to wearing the Coat and Badge than custom. Doggett’s is a celebration of the heritage of Watermen and Lightermen and their families and the scarlet costume is a physical manifestation of this. Some may not care to articulate such sentiments but they would hold the race in high esteem even if it did not involve wearing 19th-century clothing. Doggett’s winners are not usually the sort of blokes who wear knee breeches and white stockings but, as many come from families that have made their living from the Thames for as long as they can remember, they do so with pride. To quote my report on the 2011 race, the Doggett’s gives

“… a small glimpse into the remnants of a world that was once commonplace but that today has almost vanished. This is a world where ordinary families lived, worked and played together for generations.”

As we will see, the result of the 2012 race added even more to this rich heritage. After a withdrawal there were five contestants.

1 Light Blue: Ben McCann
2 Red: Merlin Dwan
3 Green: Stuart Coleman
4 Yellow: Nathaniel Brice
5 Orange: Dan Alloway

Brice passes HMS Belfast and Tower of London going to the start.

All but Brice had raced previously. The conditions were as reasonable as they can be on that part of the river which rarely produces totally calm water. Dwan was the favourite to win and he led from the start where he went off strongly. Most got off well except McCann who got himself in a bad position on the north shore from the beginning and never recovered. The final finish order of Dwan first followed by Alloway, Brice, Coleman and McCann stayed pretty much in place throughout the race.

Soutwalk Bridge 400m from start, Alloway, Brice and Dwan.

At one stage Alloway left the others and went over to the south shore but he did not seem to suffer too much because of it. At Vauxhall, he and Brice were having a good race for second place but then the latter went wide and lost contact. Dwan seemed well prepared and drew on his experience of competing in the 2011 Doggets. He rowed in the Wyfolds for London Rowing Club in this year’s Henley and was clearly very fit. His father, John, himself a Doggett’s winner, said that he avoided coaching his son as he felt that this would have added to any stress that his boy was under.

Blackfriars Bridge 1,400m from the start, Brice, Coleman and Dwan.

In the final stages of the race, the umpire had overtaken all four of the other competitors and Dwan was under no pressure as he crossed the finish. With his victory there are now five living members of the Dwan family who have won Doggett’s. Kenny won in 1971 and his sons Nick and Robert won in 2002 and 2004 respectively. Kenny's brother, John, won in 1979 and his son, Merlin, won yesterday. John said that he hoped that there were more family winners ‘in the pipeline...’

A Royal wave for the umpire.

Doggett’s is always umpired by the Bargemaster of the Fishmongers’ Company who must be a previous winner. The 2012 race was umpired by Bobby Prentice who I have written about before. There is a wonderful story written by a local newspaper here which tells of his family’s long involvement with the river. It is just another one of the many, many reasons that the Thames is sometimes described as ‘liquid history’.

Passing Parliament 3,500m from the start, Coleman, Brice, Alloway and Dwan.

The launch from the Watermen’s Company follows the race. The man in blue coat and badge is the new Watermen’s Bargemaster, Scott Neicho. St Paul’s Cathedral in the background.

Approaching Vauxhall Bridge 5,200m from the start, Coleman, Alloway and Dwan.

Gary Enniss (winner 1982) watches Brice approaching the former Battersea Power Station approx. 6,500m into the race.

Dwan’s last few strokes.

For Dwan it’s over.

Four of the five members of the Dwan Family who have won Doggett’s. L. to R. Robert (2004), Merlin (2012), Nick (2002) and John (1979). Not present Kenny (1971).

Bobby Prentice (1973) Fishmongers’ Bargemaster and race umpire.

(Text & Photographs copyright: Tim Koch)

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