Doggett's Coat and Badge (The story behind one of the oldest sporting events in the world)

Doggett's Coat and Badge (The story behind one of the oldest sporting events in the world)

We’re proud to make the official blazers for those who have competed in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race. Among the many historic clubs, events and institutions with which we are privileged to work, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge is special: for it is one the oldest continuously-held annual sporting competitions in the world alongside the Palio horse race in Siena.

The bright red jackets with hand-embroidered silverwork are part of an event with a long, colorful history.

For centuries, Londoners relied on licensed Thames watermen—the taxi drivers of their time—and their ferry boats to travel within the metropolis. Travel by road was often slow and unsafe, and until Putney Bridge opened in 1729, London Bridge was the only road crossing of the Thames downstream of Kingston. But rowing on the Tideway could also be a difficult and dangerous affair, and so as early as 1193 the Corporation of London was tasked with licensing boat operators on the Thames. Since the sixteenth century, watermen have had to complete formal apprenticeships to earn their licenses.

Comedian, writer, actor, theater manager, and ardent supporter of King George I, Irish-born Thomas Doggett was a larger-than-life character in early eighteenth-century London. He was also a frequent customer of the watermen, using their services to travel between his theater in the City and his rooms in Chelsea.

One particularly tempestuous evening, according to legend, Doggett wished to hire a waterman to row him home. In spite of the stormy weather, unfavorable tide, and turbulent water, a young waterman who had just completed his apprenticeship volunteered for the task and brought Doggett safely home. Doggett was so impressed by the fellow that he decided to fund an annual race for recently licensed watermen. According to another version of the story, the comedian decided to sponsor the race after he actually fell into the Thames and was saved from drowning by the young waterman.

Whatever his true inspiration, in 1715 Doggett established a race for newly initiated watermen from the Old Swan Inn near London Bridge to the White Swan Inn in Chelsea. The race was held on the first anniversary of King George I’s coronation, and the winner’s prize, donated by Doggett, was a traditional waterman’s coat and an ostentatious silver badge emblazoned with the word LIBERTY and the wild horse of Hanover, in honor of George I and the new royal House of Hanover.

Doggett made the Coat and Badge wager an annual event and organized the race every year until he died in 1721, when he left instructions and funds for its continuation “for ever.” The race has been managed by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers since then and can claim to be the oldest continually staged annual sporting event in the world.

It’s a profound honor for Rowing Blazers to be part of this storied event, and we look forward to the next three hundred years.