Friday, August 3, 2012

Public Spectacles, Amusements, and Objects Deserving Notice, August: Doggett's Coat and Badge

August could be a sweltering time in London in the nineteenth century.  Anyone who could got out of town, to their country estates, to the seashore, to the Lake District.  The Picture of London, which for many years was an annual volume of places to see and things to do in the capital, called the month a “dull season for amusement.”  So what was a young lady or gentleman to do if the family chose not to rusticate?

On August 1, one might head to the Thames for the annual race called Doggett’s Coat and Badge.  It had been instituted in the 1700s by Thomas Dogget, an Irish comedian who also jointly managed the Drury Lane Theatre.  In keeping with the times, he endowed a wager:  a crimson coat and a silver badge to the winner of a rowing race up the Thames, from The Swan at London Bridge to The Swan at Chelsea, a distance of 4 miles and 7 furlongs that could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to row, depending on the tide and the weight of the boat. 

Only six men could compete, and only if they were watermen within the first year of finishing their apprenticeships. You could put in your name and the Fishmongers Company, who had agreed to administrate the race, would draw the name of the six lucky rowers.

And not just any rowers.  Watermen were like taxi drivers.  Their job was the row people from one side of the river to the other in boats that ranged from sculls to heavy-bottomed wherries.  Many had set routes or locations from which they rowed: Wapping Old Stairs, Westminster, and Putney, for example.  One of the winners was from Pickle Herring.  I want to find that spot. 

The Thames is a tidal river, meaning that the current and depth changes constantly over the day.  Rowing upriver could be extremely challenging.  People crowded the bridges, flocked to spots that overlooked the river, even thronged on larger boats and barges just to watch the prodigious feat.

The winner got his own parade and a banquet at the Fishmongers Hall.  And the badge?  It was a huge piece of silver, about the size of a dinner plate, that you wore on your upper right arm.  It was engraved with symbols representing the House of Hanover, as Doggett had been a big supporter of King George.  The race is still run today, although generally in late July.  Below is the picture of the winner from 2010, Daniel Arnold, along with previous winners, courtesy of the Fishmongers Company's press release.

As you can probably tell, then as now, winning was considered quite the honor. 

Especially if you were from Pickle Herring.


Liviania said...

Seems like it would be heavy to wear that badge.

Regina Scott said...

It looks heavy to me too, Liviania! But the men all look so proud to be wearing it!

Rachel said...

It's amazing that such a tradition still continues today ;)

Regina Scott said...

It sure is, Rachel. They opened the event to amateurs some time ago, and now they row in sculls versus commercial wherries. But you can see it's still quite an honor to win!

Stephanie J said...

I found my way over here from one your magnets at Nationals! Great blog. And great post!

Regina Scott said...

Wonderful, Stephanie! Thank you for joining us! And thank you for letting us know how you found us. It's always hard to know whether giveaways work. I'm glad they did in your case!