diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 05, 2019



The Doggett's Coat and Badge Wager, which took place yesterday, is the world's oldest rowing race.
Pedantically, for the first seven years it was called The Brunswick Competition, but it's been the Doggett's Coat and Badge ever since.

It takes place annually on the 1st of August.
Clearly it no longer does, because the date was shifted to 'a Friday in July' many years ago, then shunted into September last year as part of the Totally Thames Festival.

It's rowed on the Thames between the Swan pub at London Bridge and the Swan pub at Chelsea.
Neither of these pubs now exists, but the race is still run between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier (alongside Swan Walk on the Chelsea Embankment where the Swan used to be).

The race began in 1715 and has been rowed every year since.
In fact no race was held from 1940 to 1946, but in 1947 they rowed seven extra races to catch up.

Every year up to six freshly-qualified apprentice watermen take part.
Apprentice waterpeople are hard to find these days, so since 1988 those aged 21-24 have been allowed to take part. The first woman took part in 1992, but it's mostly all men.

The fastest race was in 1973 and took 23 minutes and 22 seconds.
The race was originally run against the tide, but in 1873 it was switched to run with the incoming tide so it's easier now.

The prize given to the winner is a crimson red coat with a silver arm badge depicting Liberty, the horse of the House of Hanover.
This remains true. The red coat is now provided by the Fishmongers' Company, and it's quite the fashionable look.



Yesterday's competitors were...
In red: Patrick Keech, a marketing graduate and Chiswick Tideway Sculler. His brother won in 2017.
In light blue: James Berry, a master captain with Thames Clippers. His brother came third in 2016.
In green: George Gilbert, who works for Capital Pleasure Boats and lives in Bexleyheath.
In dark blue: Jack Finelli, an amateur boxer who works for Thames tug operators GPS.

Place your bets.

Everything is organised by the Fishmongers' Company, one of the big twelve City livery companies. Fishmongers' Hall is located alongside London Bridge, which is jolly convenient.



Things kicked off just before 2pm as the scullers headed out onto the water and the Bargemaster stood ready on his launch. He got to wear a braided maroon uniform and a bicorn hat, while the competitors were kitted out in modern lycra. Meanwhile several other pleasure boats hung back, each with Fishmongers, friends and family aboard, ready to chase the race upstream. Former race winners, in their bright red coats and caps, were easily picked out.



Most years a starting line is tightly enforced, but this year's race just seemed to drift into action. Watching from London Bridge was made extra difficult by the 'temporary' security barriers added in 2017, so that by the time spectators had managed to manoeuvre from one side of the bridge to the other the leading boat was already disappearing from view. What was already plain, however, was that the green boat was a heck of a long way behind.



It's very hard to follow an untelevised boat race unless you're on a boat yourself. One of the competitors' parents once managed to cycle from London Bridge to Chelsea to catch the end of the race, but that was really going some. I took the tube and then the bus and by the time I arrived all four scullers were already out of the water and wielding their oars along Cadogan Pier. Only one of the spectators' boats had kept up, and the remainder eventually arrived to loud cheers.



Although the congratulatory action was taking place on a private pier, a perfectly decent view could be had from Albert Bridge. The competitors hugged and rested, the besuited mingled with the beshorted, and men with extra large lenses zoomed in on the general melee. I only finally worked out who'd won the race when the competitors stood up in turn to receive a bottle of champagne and took their place on the rostrum.



George in green, as anticipated, was last. Jack in dark blue came third and James in light blue was second. Which meant that this year's winner, with his name on the roll of honour in perpetuity, was red-vested Patrick Keech. All four competitors beamed as they sprayed champagne everywhere, after which a presentation was made, I think of a luxury gentleman's watch courtesy of the chief sponsor. They can't tailor a red coat in the winner's size quite that quickly.



One last photo opportunity was required, that of this year's winner alongside last year's winner. Alfie Anderson's put on a bit of heft since last September, but at least his red coat still fitted. And then the pier party queued to board the cruiser M.V. Sapele for the return trip back to Fishmongers' Hall, to continue the celebrations there and (I suspect) for several drinks along the way. For most it'd been another splendid City jolly, but for four young men an exhilarating trial of endurance played out through the heart of London. Here's to the 306th Doggett’s Coat and Badge next year. [6 photos]


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