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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

Doggett's Coat and Badge Race, London

The oldest rowing race still held in Britain, Doggett's Coat and Badge Race on the River Thames in London began as a celebration of the accession of George I on August 1 1714, the first race held a year to the day after it. The originator, funder and organiser of the race (until his death in 1721) was the Irish comic actor, manager of Drury Lane, and sometime playwright Thomas Doggett.
Doggett's politics were fiercely Whig and supportive of the Hanoverian succession, and the prize for the rowing race he began shows this, the badge presented to the winner bearing the word 'Liberty' and displaying the Hanoverian horse.
Though his motive in the dating of the race and the prize are clear, why a rowing race in the first place is more complex: there are tales he fell in the River Thames and was rescued by a young waterman; or that he was stranded on the wrong side of the Thames on a vile night, seemingly doomed to miss his entrance at the theatre, when a waterman saved the day; or less romantically, he relied on watermen so much to ferry him from his home in Chelsea to the theatre that he wished to repay them with a day of pleasure.
The race has gone through many changes: it used to be held on August 1, and now is to be seen on a Friday late in July; it used to be against the tide, and now is with it; it was in the rowing wherries used for their work that the young watermen competed, now it is with single skull craft fit for regattas elsewhere. But the spirit of the thing lives on: watermen under 26 compete, though now they do not have to be in their first post-apprenticeship year. And the winner still has a waterman's coat made for him, in bright red these days instead of the original orange.
The Fishmongers' Company has overseen the race since Doggett's death, the intended supremo, an Admiralty civil servant, finding the prospect too taxing, involving as it did actually doing something rather than finding reasons not to. At their premises the winner is greeted by previous winners in a guard of honour then lauded and rewarded, as well as his (or potentially her nowadays, the first woman contestant raced in 1992, coming third) coat and badge being given prize money funded by the company, and a silver lapel badge - other competitors who complete the course get bronze. The winning is an honour today as it was almost 300 years ago, and the race a lot more interesting and unpredictable than the Oxford and Cambridge version.

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