We Georgians know the Thames too well, its sights, its sounds and, of course, its often eye-watering smells. That river can be a devil to cross and for that, we all call huzzah for the watermen who carry us safely across the waters in their familiar ferries. In today's tale, the worlds of theatre and river meet in the story of Doggett's Coat and Badge.
To start the story, we shall take a diversion by way of Dublin in pursuit of a theatrical gentleman, who made a lasting contribution to the sporting life of London. Not a great tragedian nor a noteworthy Shakespearean, it's time to pour the claret and welcome Thomas Doggett to Gin Lane!
A successful comedy actor in Ireland, Doggett was approaching middle age when he arrived in the capital to make his stage debut. He enjoyed great success as a comedic performer and became known as one third of the actor-manager triumvirate at the Drury Lane Theatre with Robert Wilks and Colley Cibber, a famed partnership eventually ended by one too many differences of opinion. He also managed the Haymarket though it isn't for his theatrical career that Thomas has caught my eye, it is for Doggett's Coat and Badge.
Married to a lady from Eltham, whilst working in the city Doggett would commute to his rooms in Chelsea from his Kent home. As was common, he spent much time travelling on the river, where he developed friendships with many of the city's 2500 watermen. The waterman were responsible for ferrying passengers across the Thames safely; each served a seven year apprenticeship and many of the watermen had followed generations of their family into the trade.
Always fond of a little entertainment, when George I came to the throne in 1714, the patriotic Doggett decided that something should be done to mark the occasion, especially since the new monarch was one of his greatest fans. After casting around for inspiration he hit on the idea of a boat race on the Thames, to be rowed annually on 1st August. The competitors were to be six watermen who had served as apprentices for a minimum of six months and the prize for the victor would be traditional watermen's coat adorned with a silver badge bearing the white horse motif of the Hanovers. It was a handsome prize and with Doggett's talent for showmanship and publicity, a sought-after one too!
|Doggett's Coat and Badge by Thomas Rowlandson|
The early races were enormously popular and the six contestants were chosen by ballot from hundreds of entrants. Rowing their ferries against the tide, the race was a true test of strength and stamina. The watermen were a vital part of the fabric of London life and the annual event was an opportunity for them to shine and be celebrated by the people who used their services every day.
Huge crowds gathered to watch the contest and to this day the race is still held every summer, the world's oldest annual sporting event. Doggett's name lives on as the benefactor of this unique race, best enjoyed with good friends and a tasty picnic; it makes for a fine way to spend a day!