Curious Questions: What is the world’s oldest extant rowing race?

The history of competitive rowing races goes back to the ancients, but which is the oldest race still being held? The annual Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race has been a fixture on the sporting calendar of Britain for almost two centuries — but there is a far older example still going, Doggett's Coat and Badge, which boasts an unbroken record of winners for more than three centuries examples. Martin Fone explains.

With roads narrow, congested, and poorly maintained and London Bridge the only dry crossing over the Thames until well into the eighteenth century, the easiest way to travel around the capital was by water. Ferries ran at various points along the river, large enough to transport horses and wagons as well as pedestrians. Alternatively, four-passenger wherries could be summoned from the many stairs that led down to Thames. For those wishing to travel along rather than across the river, long ferries ran the length of the river from Chelsea in the west to Greenwich in the east.

Ferry franchises were lucrative and held by the Crown or aristocrats, who leased them out to a waterman. Being a waterman was a skilled occupation requiring a detailed knowledge of the tides and currents of the river as well as the ability to handle a heavy boat in all weathers. It was also extremely competitive, watermen congregating around the stairs, jostling for trade, crying ‘oars, oars, scull, oars, oars’.

John Stow’s A Survey of London (1596) gives an idea of the volume of river traffic and the numbers employed. ‘There pertaineth’, he wrote, ‘to the cities of London, Westminster, and borough of Southwark, above the number, as is supposed, of 2,000 wherries and other small boats, whereby 3,000 poor men, at the least, be set on work and maintained’. London’s population at the time was around 200,000.

Boats fighting the tide and waves around Old London Bridge, as seen in this 18th century woodcut.

The first attempts to impose some order on ferries were made in the 16th century with the passing of a statute in 1514 regulating fares and an Act of Parliament in 1555 establishing the Company of Waterman. A City Guild rather than a Livery Company, it introduced a one-year apprenticeship for passenger-carrying watermen plying their trade between Windsor and Gravesend.

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The preamble to an Act of Parliament in 1603 openly criticised watermen stating that people travelling between Windsor and Gravesend ‘have been put to great hazard and danger and the loss of their lives and goods, and many times have perished and been drowned in the said River through the unskilfulness and want of knowledge or experience in the wherrymen and watermen’. Henceforth, watermen carrying passengers had to be at least eighteen years old and to have completed an apprenticeship lasting seven years. They were then entitled to become a freeman of the Company. Fast forward a century and we reach the point where this story truly begins.

Dublin-born Thomas Doggett used his thespian talents to good effect, becoming ‘the leading low comedian of the London stage’ and later an impresario, managing the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Haymarket Theatre. By the time he retired in 1713 he had amassed ‘a fortune sufficient for the rest of his life’.


A staunch Whig, a fervent supporter of the Hanoverian cause, and inspired, it is said, by an encounter with a newly qualified waterman who was the only one prepared to take him across the Thames on a foul night, Doggett placed a placard on London Bridge on July 31, 1715, the eve of the first anniversary of George I’s accession to the British throne. It read ‘there will be given by Mr Doggett an orange colour livery with a badge representing Liberty to be rowed for by six watermen that are out of their time within the year past. They are to row from London Bridge to Chelsea. It will be continued annually on the same day for ever’. The Brunswick Coat and Badge Wager, later known as the Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge or the Wager, was born.

The following day six watermen chosen by lot, who had completed their seven-year apprenticeship during the previous year, rowed their heavy wherries along the 7,400-metre stretch of river from the site of the Old Swan Tavern by London Bridge to the Swan Inn at Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. Rowing against the tide and taking more than two hours of strenuous effort to complete the course, it was a test of endurance and skill. John Opey of Saviour’s Hill, the winner, received a scarlet coat with a solid silver badge on the sleeve showing a leaping horse and the word ‘Liberty’, as well as a matching cap.

Doggett organised the race each year until his death in 1721. Anxious that the race would not die with him, his Will required his executor, Mr Burt of the Admiralty Office, to establish a Trust to provide annually ad infinitum ‘five pounds for a Badge of Silver representing Liberty, eighteen shillings for a Livery on which the Badge was to be put, a guinea for making up the suit of livery and buttons and appurtenances to it, and 30 shillings to the Clerk of the Watermen’s Hall’.

Burt, though, was reluctant to assume Doggett’s mantle and passed responsibility and the Trust of £300 to the Fishmongers’ Company, who have organised the race since 1722, although from 2019 they have shared the task with the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. It is Britain’s oldest continuously held rowing race, leaving its more famous Thames rival, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, first held in 1829, trailing in its wake.

Three spectators watch the beginning of the 245th Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race at London Bridge.

The winner still receives a coat and badge to Doggett’s design at a ceremony held at Fishmongers’ Hall. To a fanfare of trumpets, they, together with the Clerk to the Company and Bargemaster, are escorted into the Hall by past winners dressed in their coats and badges. The Clerk describes the race in suitably Homeric style, the Prime Warden drinks to the victor’s health, and then the winner is escorted out to the strains of Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary.

There have been some changes along the way. The race is no longer held on August 1st, the date set according to tides and river conditions. In 1873 the course was reversed, allowing oarsmen to take advantage of the incoming tide. This decision, together with the use of single scull boats, reduced the time to complete the course by three quarters, Bobby Prentice setting the race record of 23 minutes and twenty-two seconds in 1973. Not everyone was enamoured with the change, one contemporary thundering that ‘this deplorable decision to go with the flow obviously marks the start of the subsequent sustained decline in the British national character’.

The Second World War only put a temporary halt on the race. Suspended during hostilities, nine races were held in 1947, one for each of the years that those completing their apprenticeship were unable to enter. This imaginative solution ensured an unbroken roll of winners from 1715, a precedent followed in 2021 when two races were held after the 2020 event fell foul of Covid restrictions.

In 1988, because of the decline in numbers of watermen and apprentices, the qualification criteria were changed to allow competitors to enter within three years of completing their apprenticeship. The first woman to compete, Claire Burran, came third in 1992.

The 308th Doggett Coat and Badge Race, scheduled for July 19th this year, hit choppy waters when the extreme temperatures led to its postponement. It was eventually held on July 28th with George Gilbert of the Poplar Blackwall and District Rowing Club, returning for his final attempt, finishing ahead of first-time entrant Matthew Brookes. The indomitable spirit of the watermen lives on.

William Sylvester being toasted by his brother and his father, past winners of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race, after his victory at the 223rd annual sculling race in 1937, held over a 4 mile course from London Bridge to Chelsea Bridge.

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