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Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race

Doggett's competitor readies his boat for the 2012 race
(click on image to enlarge)

This annual race for newly qualified Thames Watermen and Lightermen was first contested in 1715 and is thought to be the oldest continuing sporting contest in the World. The race is named after Thomas Doggett, an Irish actor and comedian, who came to London in about 1690. After considerable success on the stage at the Drury Lane Theatre he went on to manage the theatre itself before moving to the Haymarket Theatre, again as manager. 

Doggett lived in the village of Chelsea and made regular use of the Watermen of the Thames to take him to and from his places of work. These Watermen were licensed to row passengers along and across the River between the various steps and stairs and were the equivalent of the taxi drivers of modern times. Doggett appears to have taken a great interest in these men and gave a coat and silver badge to be rowed for by six Watermen in the first year of their Freedom of the River Thames. The race was held on 1st August 1715 to commemorate the first anniversary of the accession of King George I to the British throne.

The race became an annual event and Doggett continued to organise it until he died in 1721. He left instructions in his Will that  the race was to continue each 1st August for ever, and that his executors should meet from his estate the cost of the badge and livery for the winner. Unwilling to take on this commitment in perpetuity, Doggett's executors arranged to pay the sum of £300 to the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers which agreed to take on the responsibility for arranging and funding the race. The Fishmongers Company continues to comply with this undertaking to the present day, although the costs of providing the coat and badge have increased over the centuries.

The race was suspended during the second World War (1939 to 1946) but nine races were held in 1947 to allow those watermen who had missed out during the war years to row for the year they would have qualified to do so under normal circumstances. This means that the list of winners has remained unbroken since 1715.

The race is now held in July rather than August and the date varies from year to year depending on the tide. It is now rowed with the tide but, before 1873, it was traditionally rowed against the tide. Those entitled to take part in the race continue to be young Watermen who are in their first year of freedom of the Watermen’s Company. In recent years this has also included a few qualified young women. The race still follows the original course from London Bridge to Chelsea, a distance of four miles and seven furlongs. 

Until the late 1980's the custom that only those watermen in their first year of freedom would be allowed to compete was maintained, meaning that each waterman could have only one attempt. However, this rule was relaxed from 1988 and since then unsuccessful competitors are permitted to return and compete again in their second or third years of freedom, subject to a maximum age of 26 on the day of the race.

Click here to see a photogallery of the 2013 race.