Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Doggett's Coat and Badge

By Gillian Bagwell

Doggett’s Coat and Badge is both the name of and prize for the oldest rowing race in the world, which has been held in London every year since 1715. It is believed to be the oldest continually staged annual sporting event in the world, and has a colorful and unlikely history.

Thomas Doggett
Thomas Doggett, an Irish actor and comedian, was born in Dublin in about 1640, and made his first stage appearance in London in 1691 as Nincompoop in Thomas D'Urfey's Love for Money.  He became popular and when Thomas Betterton opened the new theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1695 with William Congreve’s comedy Love for Love, Doggett delighted the crowds playing Ben, a role the playwright had written for him.

Doggett's Coat and Badge
by Thomas Rowlandson
While he continued a successful acting career, Doggett also became one of the managers of the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which is another London institution with a very long history.  It’s where Nell Gwynn got her start selling oranges when the first theatre opened in 1663, before she began acting, and it’s currently playing “Shrek: The Musical.” 

Doggett lived in Chelsea, and since the river was a principal way to get about London in those days, he was a frequent patron of the Thames watermen.  There is a story, apparently apocryphal, that one day Doggett fell into the water and that a waterman rescued him from drowning. 

The winner in 1876
In any case, he had a fondness for the watermen, and in 1715 he set up a contest in which watermen raced the four miles between the Swan Pub near London Bridge and the Swan Pub in Chelsea, rowing the four-seated wherries in which they regularly carried passengers. Watermen had been authorized by the crown since 1510, and were members of a company, which regulated the trade.  They wore a uniform – a red coat with a silver badge, and the prize for Doggett’s race was such a cap and badge.

Doggett was “a great Whig in politics” and an ardent Hanoverian, and the race was held on August 1 to commemorate the date of George I’s accession to the English throne the previous year.  The badge given to the winner featured the word “Liberty” and the horse representing the House of Hanover. 

Incidentally, George I was the son of Sophie of Hanover, the daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia and granddaughter of James I.  He succeeded because Charles II had no legitimate heirs, and was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II, who was ousted in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband and cousin William of Orange.  When they had both died, Mary's sister Anne came to the throne.  Sophie would have succeeded her, but died only months before Anne did.  Charles II had at one point wanted to marry his cousin Sophie.  It's too bad he didn't, as it would likely have averted the succession crisis, the Jacobite uprisings, and the destruction of Scotland.  But I digress....

Doggett organized the race each year until 1721, the year that he died, and his will provided “for procuring yearly on the first day of August forever … Five Pounds for a Badge of Silver weighing about Twelve Ounces and representing Liberty to be given to be rowed for by Six Young Watermen according to my Custom, Eighteen Shillings for Cloath for a Livery whereon the said Badge is to be put . . . all which I would have to be continued yearly forever in Commemoration of His Majesty King Georges happy Accession to the Brittish Throne.”
The start of the race, 1906
The Fishmongers’ Company has set the regulations since 1769, and there have been some changes since Doggett’s day, when the race helped attract trade for the Watermen. The contestants originally battled against the outgoing tide, but since 1873 they have rowed with the incoming tide. The original wherries, which took about two hours to row from London to Chelsea, were succeeded by various other craft.  Now the race is held on a Friday in late July, and the contestants use contemporary single racing sculls and complete the course from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier in Chelsea in about thirty minutes. The record, set by Bobby Prentice in 1973, was 23 minutes and 22 seconds.

Originally only professional watermen could compete, but since 1950 amateurs have been allowed to take part, though they do not accept monetary prizes.  Claire Burran was the first woman to compete, in 1992.  Modern contestants all receive a miniature of the silver badge, and the Fishmongers’ Company still hands out the prize money to the winners and the competing rowing clubs.

2011 race - Alloway approaching Vauxhall Bridge
The 2011 winner - Chris Anness
Gillian Bagwell is the author of The Darling Strumpet, The September Queen, and the forthcoming My Lady Bess.  For information about her books, other articles, and links to the blogs of her research adventures, please visit her website,

Sources and Further Reading:


Ackroyd, Peter. Thames: The Biography (2009) Doubleday
Weinreb, Ben, et al. The London Encyclopedia  (1983) MacMillan.

Parish Register


  1. That is an interesting posting. I knew about the waterman, but knew nothing about Doggett and his race. To think, they are still doing it- cool!

    Thanks for the post!

  2. It is great! It would be fun to be a strong young'un and train for this. Winning would be a thrill!


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