Tim Koch reports from London (with some help of Chris Dodd):
Ask anyone involved in rowing and sculling what the sport’s oldest event is and most would suggest either the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race (1829) or Henley Royal Regatta (1839). Few would know that it is, in fact, a 300-year-old single sculling race, the curiously named ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager’, a contest that has been run continuously since 1715. The HTBS reports on this unique event and on its fascinating history cover 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
While 2014 saw the 300th race, it has been decided that the big celebrations will be held in 2015 to mark the 300th year. Nonetheless, this year’s Doggett’s still attracted a Royal visitor in the person of the Queen’s husband, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. As this Pathe Newsreel shows, he last saw the race in 1951 (though the film’s commentary is particularly ill-informed).
Colin Middlemiss, Clerk to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen (who organise the event in conjunction with the Fishmongers’ Company) said:
It has been 500 years this year since the earliest Act of Parliament for regulating watermen, wherrymen and bargemen received Royal Assent from King Henry VIII. It’s an extremely special year for us, and we are thrilled the Duke of Edinburgh will be joining one of the oldest and most important celebrations of the river.
The Doggett’s obscurity is in large part due to the fact that it is only open to those under the age of 26 who, in the previous three years, have completed the long apprenticeship to qualify them to carry goods and people on the River Thames. If that were not enough of a barrier to entry, the course itself should dissuade all but the brave or the foolish. It runs from London Bridge to Chelsea, 7,400 metres of unsettled and unsuitable water containing washes, bends, bridges and currents. The prize for this winner of this mad event is suitably eccentric – the scarlet costume of an 18th-century Waterman, a sleeve of which sports a solid silver badge the size of a dinner plate. The less tangible prize is the honour of joining a very exclusive club. The ‘Coat and Badge’ continues to have enormous prestige in the tightly knit community of the Thames Watermen and their families, many of which have worked the river together for generations.
The competitors drew lots for their colours and stations at Fishmongers’ Hall on 23 June. In traditional style (with my additions in italics), it was announced:
The names of the five young Watermen who are to row on Tuesday, 15th July 2014, in the 300th 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:
Ben Folkard, Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club. Colour: Green.
Age 23, height 6'3'', weight 76kg. His first attempt at Doggett’s but he comes from a family of Watermen and his grandfather is his Apprentice Master.
Dominic Coughlin, Medway Towns Rowing Club. Colour: Blue.
Age 23, height 6'0'', weight 74kg. First in his family to compete, came 6th in last year’s race.
Louis Pettipher, Medway Towns Rowing Club. Colour: Orange.
Age 23, height 6'0'', weight 79kg. The other first time competitor, though his brother raced three times. He has been sculling for eight months.
Charlie Maynard, Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club. Colour: Red.
Aged 22, height 5'9'', weight 79kg. He came fourth last year and an ancestor, George Maynard, won Doggett’s in 1833.
Henry McCarthy, Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club. Colour: Yellow.
Aged 22, Height 6'1'', weight 77kg. He came second last year. His father, Simon, won in 1984 and an uncle, Jeremy, won in 1992.
When the 2014 race lined up just below London Bridge at 12.45 it was a warm, calm day and, by Doggett’s standards, the tide was reasonably low and slack. It was McCarthy who got off to the best start and took an immediate lead. Folkard moved close to the north bank from the start while the others stayed to the south or centre.
By Southwark Bridge the order was McCarthy, Maynard, Pettipher, Folkard and Coughlin. This order was maintained through the Millennium Footbridge and onto Blackfriars Bridge, though the leader’s advantage increased and last two scullers, Folkard and Coughlin, fell increasingly behind the leading pack of three.
By Waterloo Bridge (about 1,900 metres) the leading pack had reshuffled slightly resulting in McCarthy leading Pettipher who in turn led Maynard. At the half-way point, the Houses of Parliament, the order was unchanged but the distances between the boats increased. Around this point the umpire ‘dropped’ Coughlin and overtook him.
At the old Battersea Power Station, 6,500 metres into the 7,400-metre race, McCarthy had about fourteen lengths on Pettipher who was about four lengths up on Maynard.
At the finish the gap between the second and third placed boats was decreasing but Harry McCarthy sculled home to win convincingly in 24 minutes and 35 seconds. Second place was Louis Pettipher, third Charlie Maynard, fourth Ben Folkard and fifth Dom Coughlin.
While congratulations to the winner of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge are always in order, I must single out McCarthy for special praise. In my report on last year’s race I wrote:
Despite McCarthy maintaining form and never giving up, a calm and efficient Brice kept a lead which varied between three and four lengths...... Brice was a worthy winner but I confidently predict that McCarthy, in his first Doggett’s race today, will cross the line first in 2014 or 2015.
What particularly impressed me in the 2013 race was that, even when he clearly could not win, McCarthy continued to hurt himself and give his all. I wish some of the competitors at Henley in particular would give such displays of sportsmanship. Again this year, Harry continued to row hard and feel the pain even when it was obvious that he would win. The pictures of him at the finish tell far better than words what the victory meant to him.
The press launch drew up alongside McCarthy’s scull a few seconds after the finish and the 300th Doggett’s man told us his feelings about winning, especially as he follows his father who won in 1984 and his uncle who won in 1992:
I wanted to keep it in the family. My Dad has done the Lord Mayor’s Show and things like that and it’s been my dream to walk alongside him...... I came second last year so I had a couple of months off, went on holiday with Charlie (Maynard), one of my best mates, and when we came back we started training (I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s Eve) and you train six days a week, twice a day.... My Dad doesn’t give me grief, he’s like my best mate, he’s helped me through everything this year, I couldn’t have done it without him.....
Later, in the pub, I asked him about his future plans:
I want to row at Henley, I saw this year’s finals and I want to carry on now.... I want to get into a crew boat...... I hate training but I love racing..... I grew up with (my opponents).... and when we train we are still mates but with about three weeks to go..... you don’t really talk to each other..... but you finish the race, give each other a big cuddle and we’re friends again.....
onthethames.net via @greenwichcouk.
the bespoke footwear also favoured by his son, Prince Charles.
On the boat back to Fishmongers’ Hall, I asked Robert ‘Bobby’ Prentice, who as Bargemaster of the Fishmongers’ Company is the race umpire, for his take on the this year’s Doggett’s:
The lads did us all proud, it was one of those races where you want everyone to win..... The one that stood out to me was Louis Pettipher, he rowed such a good race. Charlie (Maynard) was always there, in with a great chance, and Harry did the business.... Ben (Folkard) pulled up on the north shore, if he had come over, he would have been a lot closer. And, as always, Dominic (Coughlin) gives value for money. Great competitors all....
Bobby never lets on, but at the end of every race perhaps he is quietly relieved that he still holds the course record. His comments on Pettipher were interesting. If someone who has been sculling only since last November comes second, they must be a very strong contender for winning next year.
livery company with 700 years of history, the opulent Hall has a wonderful collection of paintings, furniture and silverware. I loved this little silver mustard pot supported by a mermaid and a merman that was tantalisingly placed in front of me. I resisted the temptation to give it a new home.
People in ‘conventional’ rowing and sculling sometimes wonder how good ‘Doggett’s Men’ really are. No doubt, the general standard was probably better in the days when Watermen powered their craft by oars, not engines. Today, the best competitors are of a good ‘club standard’. For example, the 2012 winner, Merlin Dwan, rowed in that year’s Henley Wyfolds for London Rowing Club and the 2011 victor, Chris Anness, sculled in the lightweight single and also the quad for London at that year’s National Championships. The least able competitors will perhaps train just enough to be able to finish the course – though, this in itself is no mean achievement considering the distance and the typical conditions.
Like many things in Britain, the Doggett’s has a bit of a ‘class divide’. For historical reasons, both the Waterman’s Company and the Fishmongers’ Company are involved in its organisation. The former is composed mostly of working men whose trade is ‘the river’, while these days the latter’s members are more likely to be involved with ‘The City’ (London’s financial district) than with fish (with the exception of the occasional smoked salmon canapé). The twain tend not to meet and both have a different appreciation of the event and different ideas on its future. The Fishmongers’ probably see Doggett’s in the same way that non-rowers see Henley, that is as a predominantly social event. There is nothing wrong with this, indeed both Henley and Doggett’s would be the poorer without this aspect to them. The Watermen have a much more emotional tie to a race that they see as part of their heritage, something that any HTBS reader must be able to appreciate. The Fishmongers’ would like to ‘raise the profile’ of the event and market it in a modern way. The Watermen want to leave it pretty much as it always has been. As an historian and a blogger, I can appreciate both points of view.
In his will, the founder of the race, Thomas Doggett, stipulated that the event should continue ‘for ever’. That is a long time but, whatever the problems of maintaining this curious anachronism, I cannot but help feel confident that it is good for at least another 300 years.
My thanks to Chris Dodd for his help in producing the race summery (though any mistakes are mine).
Photographs © Tim Koch