Launch Of World's Oldest River Race
London's Coat and Badge Race is still afloat thanks to its founder Dublin-born comic Tom Doggett, says frank hopkins
Thomas doggett, one of the best-known actors and comedians of his day, was born at Castle Street in Dublin sometime around the year 1670.
Little is known of his early life or family circumstances but he was working as an actor at the Smock Alley Theatre in 1684 where he is listed as performing in a play entitled The Night Walker in which 'Doggy' Doggett played the boy.
Although Doggett was revered during his life for his skills as an actor and as manager of the Drury Lane theatre, his name is still remembered in British rowing circles for his role in establishing an annual boat race on the river Thames which has taken place on August 1st every year since 1716. On August 1st that year, Doggett placed the following advertisement in the London newspapers:
"This being the day of his majesty's happy accession to the throne, there will be given by Mr Doggett an orange colour livery (coat) with a badge representing liberty, to be rowed for by six watermen that are out of their time within the year past. They are to row from London Bridge to Chelsea. It will be continued on the same day forever."
The coat was an attractive prize for the young watermen as the coat contained many pockets, each one containing a guinea.
Doggett's Coat and Badge Race is the oldest and longest river race in the world and it has been claimed that it is the world's oldest sporting event in continuous existence.
It has been said that Doggett came up with the idea of the race in gratitude to a Thames waterman after he had fallen into the Thames in 1715, but it seems more likely that he did it to commemorate the accession of George I to the British throne.
Doggett died in 1721 but he left detailed instructions in his will regarding the continued funding of the race. He left property to an Edward Burt of the British Admiralty office, which would generate an income of £10 per annum, and this was used to fund the race after his death. Dogget instructed that £5 of this would go towards the purchase of the silver badge while the rest was to be spent in the manufacture of the prize coat.
The course of the race was originally four and a half miles long, beginning at London Bridge and ending at Chelsea. And just to make it even harder, the race was rowed against the ebb tide in heavy wooden skiffs. Under these arduous conditions, the race would sometimes take up to two hours to complete.
Cheating was rampant during the early days of the race and some competitors would stop at nothing in order to win Doggett's guineas. In 1723, the sport of sculling was given new meaning when one unfortunate boatman had his "skull knocked away and a big boat rowed across his bows". Other competitors tried to cheat by using lighter boats.
Today, Tom Doggett's Coat and Badge race is still an annual event on the Thames although it's now staged at the end of July. The race is not such an arduous feat as it once was and competitors don't have to race against the tide anymore.
This year will be the 293rd anniversary of this historic boat race, a tradition begun by a Dublin comedian nearly 300 years ago.