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.