Doggett's Coat and Badge Race

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This sculling race of over four miles, down the Thames from London Bridge to Chelsea, has been staged every year since 1715, apart from during the two world wars. It was founded by Thomas Doggett, actor-manager at the Haymarket and Drury Lane theatres who, when he died in 1721, left money to form a trust to perpetuate the custom, which later handed over responsibility for organization to the London Fishmongers' Company in association with the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, who still run the event. The race was for six Thames watermen who had just completed their apprenticeship to compete, every 1 August, for a prize of a splendid orange coat and even more splendid badge, the latter representing ‘liberty’. This all had a political meaning at the time, as Doggett was a staunch supporter of George I and the new house of Hanover. The first of August was the day of George I's accession to the throne, the orange and the horse motif on the badge also represented the royal family. The race was sufficiently well known to form the background to a ballad-opera by Charles Dibdin, entitled The Waterman, or The First of August, first produced at the Haymarket in 1774. An account of the race and a biographical sketch of Doggett can be found in Hone (1827: ii. 531–3). Some changes have been made over the years. The coat is now red. The boats have gradually become smaller and lighter and the date is fixed more by the state of the tides than by Doggett's original decree. Late July is usually the time now. Most important of all, for the racers, they now move with the tide rather than against it. When there were too many applicants, the six were chosen by lot, but now there are eliminating heats. The winners wear their coats at subsequent races, where they act as stewards, and on other ceremonial occasions on the Thames.

Hone, 1827: ii. 531–3;Shuel, 1985: 145–8;Kightly, 1986: 101–2;Stone, 1906: 51.

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