Rowing on the River Thames
Historically, rowing on the River Thames was purely a professional activity for the thousands of watermen and lightermen who had boat licences. These men provided vital services and were highly skilled. Due to their strength and speed, it wasn’t long before wagers were set among the working man’s rowing community, encouraging competition in races.
As these races grew in popularity, so did the crowds who came in huge numbers to the river banks to watch and place bets on a winner. The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, set up by actor Thomas Doggett in 1715, survives today as one of the most sought-after titles of this time.
By the early 1800s, rowing began to be taken seriously as a sport for gentlemen. Oxford and Cambridge university students began racing each other in around 1815, and the first of the now famous races took place in 1829. Henley Royal Regatta followed in 1839, attracting large crowds of spectators over its five days, and becoming a great social and sporting event.
Men who rowed for a living were initially excluded from amateur racing as it was thought they had an unfair advantage. It wasn’t until 1956 that professionals were allowed to compete at Henley. While the closure of the docks and mechanisation of river industries saw a steep decline in the watermen and lightermen’s trade, Doggett’s is still raced by Thames river workers today.
Although the sport of rowing is thriving on the Thames, it may never again have the mass popularity that it once had when fuelled by those who made their living on the river.
Watermen & Lightermen
Before bridges could get people from one side of the Thames to the other, watermen and lightermen were essential to London’s river transport and industry. The city’s roads were congested so the river was a vital thoroughfare, full of boats of all sizes.
Watermen traditionally provided the vital service of transporting people to destinations up and down the Thames. Their small boats, called wherries, allowed them to row their passengers and navigate the busy traffic on the river. Lightermen were the workers who transferred goods between ships and quays, aboard flat-bottomed barges called lighters. If watermen were the river’s taxi drivers, then lightermen drove the lorries.
As London’s bridges were built and large containers were introduced for transporting cargo, the demand for watermen and lightermen declined, but they continue to serve important roles today. Many work in the pleasure boat industry, or operate passenger services such as MBNA Thames Clippers.
Apprenticeships are still completed for those wanting to work on the river, offered through the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Apprentices train for five years, working commercially on the River Thames. They start by working afloat for an employer, and then attend formal training, learning the more technical aspects of river life, including the rules of safe navigation and the rhythm of the tides. Once their training and exams are completed, the apprentice becomes a Freeman of the Company.
Wagers & Betting
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, rowing attracted huge crowds as no admission could be charged for standing on the river banks. Spectators were often willing to take big risks to win money and better their lives.
Contestants were also motivated by the rewards of gambling. Success in sport was one of the few ways out of poverty, and the returns generated by betting could be staggering. In 1882, when an unskilled man earned about £1 a week, professional oarsman Ned Hanlan won a £1,000 prize in the so-called World and English Sculling Championship. This equated to 20 years of wages. Professional rowers were the Premier League footballers of their day.
Races on the Thames were once so popular that there could be as many as five in a day. From its inception in 1715, The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge soon attracted widespread betting. As these events had virtually no rules, spectators would often interfere with the races to ensure that their man won.
However, interest in betting on rowing began to change. The Industrial Revolution saw the emergence of sport being watched for leisure and as a relief from work. The increasingly prosperous Victorians began to have the time, energy and inclination to watch and participate in sports for pleasure, unmotivated by the chance of financial gain through betting.
The decline of betting on professional rowing in Britain, accelerated by popular interest transferring to football, removed the incentive for watermen to race competitively. Today, however, money from the National Lottery has funded much of Britain’s current success on the world rowing scene. Gambling is once more fuelling top-level rowing.
Special thanks to Tim Koch
Doggett's Coat & Badge
Begun in 1715, The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge involves up to six apprentice watermen of the Thames. The young competitors row between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier in Chelsea over a distance of four miles.
Thomas Doggett, born in Ireland, came to London in around 1690 to make his career as an actor and comedian, eventually becoming manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. One stormy night in 1715, Doggett was rowed home by a newly licensed young waterman. The skills of the rower impressed Doggett to such an extent that he used the experience to set the rules for his now legendary race.
Doggett decided that the prize for winning his race would be a red coat featuring a large silver badge on the arm. The prize remains much the same today. Doggett limited the race to young watermen in the first year of freedom from their apprenticeship. This meant that the men known as ‘wagermen’, who specialised in rowing for prize money, could not take part. Fresh new blood would always ensure that Doggett’s race was an exciting challenge. Winning the prestigious Coat and Badge requires great strength and determination, and those who succeed still maintain a privileged status as Thames watermen.
After Doggett’s death in 1722, the Fishmongers Livery Company took over the responsibility of the race, and they have ensured that it has been raced annually ever since. The coat is still being tailored in the style worn by the watermen of the early 18th century, and the silver badge remains the same design and dimensions as that designed by Doggett himself.
Let your oars like lightening flog it
Up the Thames as swiftly jog it
And you’d win the prize of Doggett
The Glory of the river
Special thanks to Bob Crouch
Gentlemen Amateurs vs. Tradesmen & Professionals
Rowing was once a purely practical trade carried out by tough, working men who carried goods and people on the river. Competitions between these professionals were popular, with wager races and regattas being held up and down the country. In 1831 the first World Professional Sculling Championships was held. Winners such as Ted Phelps were sporting celebrities of their day.
As rowing for wagers grew in the 18th century, young gentlemen at Eton and Westminster Schools and Oxford and Cambridge Universities began to hire boats from professional watermen who taught them to row.
For the first half of the 19th century, gentlemen and professional rowers enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Watermen’s trade was in decline, so they welcomed new business from teaching. Early gentlemen rowers were not opposed to competing for prize money but soon the relationship became strained. The upper-class became fanatical about ‘amateurism’, sport done purely for pleasure and with no financial reward. This therefore excluded their professional rivals.
Based on the idea that money brings corruption, amateurism was initially part of an attempt to make sport fair. Unfortunately, there was a lot of confusion defining what made an amateur rower. In the 1870s, the Amateur Rowing Association decided that an amateur could not be ‘a labourer or anyone engaged in any menial duty’.
Privileged gentlemen may have made this rule because they didn’t want to compete against strong men who performed tough, physical labour. However, these gentlemen suffered as they could not employ the professionals to coach them. Although the rule preventing gentlemen amateurs and tradesman from rowing together was abolished in 1938, the legacy of these divisions lasted well into the modern era.
London's Rowing Clubs
Rowing clubs have their origins on the Thames from the early 1800s, starting out as small groups of enthusiasts hiring boats and renting changing rooms from pubs and boat houses along the river.
As rowing grew in popularity among ‘gentleman amateur’ rowers, new elite clubs were established, serving rowers from public schools and universities. These were distinct and different from the established clubs, which served the professional and tradesmen community.
One of the few original tradesmen’s clubs that still thrives today is Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club. Founded in 1854 by watermen and lightermen of the Thames, it remains one of the oldest rowing clubs in the country. Due to their trade, the club’s members were categorised as professional and so could only compete against other professionals and members of the Trademen’s Rowing Association.
Poplar has a long rowing tradition and has seen over forty-five winners of The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge. Members have also represented Great Britain and have won medals at World and Olympic level. By 1951 the club was admitted to the National Amateur Rowing Association. This meant that members could compete in all amateur regattas and were no longer discriminated against for their tradesmen’s status. In 1956, the club was admitted to Henley Royal Regatta for the first time with their ‘Lighterman’s Eight’ and reached the semi-finals.
Clubs such as Poplar provide an important hub for the watermen’s rowing community. They have long traditions of hosting the celebratory drinks after a Doggett’s race, as well as being venues for weddings and parties. Race winners attend in their prestigious Doggett’s uniform as recognition of its importance.
Special thanks to Tim Koch
Lucy Pocock & Women's Racing: Lucy Pocock & Women's Racing
Rowing on the river has traditionally been a male-dominated pastime, but women have played an important role both as competitors and active members of established rowing families. Although not well documented, women played significant roles in their family’s trade, and men’s and women’s lives and work on the river would overlap.
Lucy Pocock was born in 1887 in Kingston-upon-Thames into a family of established watermen and boat builders. Growing up around boats, Lucy started rowing from a young age and began winning competitive races around age 18. In 1906, Lucy won the Mixed Double Sculls at Henley Town and Visitors’ Regatta. Her brother Dick had competed and won Doggett’s race in 1910.
Then in 1912, the Daily Mirror Sculling Championship of the Thames was held. A rowing race between female family members of previous Doggett’s winners, the race was a revival of an event held in 1833 and proved extremely popular. Over 25,000 people lined the banks of the Thames to watch Lucy beat her 32 rivals and be named champion.
Lucy used her prize money to relocate to Seattle with her father and brothers. She worked as a cook for the men’s rowing team at University of Washington where her brothers also worked. Lucy then became a rowing and swimming coach for the University. She continued to row for pleasure.
Lucy represents a community of women who have remained largely unrecognised by history. Although women’s rowing is now more visible, there is still no women’s race equivalent to Doggett’s. To date only two women have competed in Doggett’s Race for Coat and Badge.
Special thanks to Lisa Taylor
The Women of Doggett's: Claire Hayes
In 1992, a 287-year tradition in the world of Thames rowing was broken. Claire Hayes, a 24-year-old bank clerk from London, became the first woman to compete in the Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge. Rowing alongside four men, Claire finished a very respectable third and changed rowing history books forever.
Claire was born into a family of watermen. Her father, John Hayes, transported cargo to barges on the Thames and offered Claire an apprenticeship. When she completed her training, Claire worked on river barges for five years before moving to a career in finance. Having rowed from a young age, Claire was determined to compete in Doggett’s in tribute to her grandmother, also a keen rower, who was not allowed to participate in the race during her lifetime.
Claire’s participation in the race didn’t lead to a surge of women competitors, however. Kate Saunders is the only other woman to race in Doggett’s, taking part three times in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
The Women of Doggett's: Kate Saunders
Kate’s family also have a long tradition of working on the Thames, and she is a fourth-generation Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Her father Len held the prestigious ceremonial post of Queen’s Waterman, and her brother Leonard competed alongside Kate in the Doggett’s races of 1998 and 1999. She finished third in her final race in 2000.
Some might regard trying to compete with men on a level playing field as foolhardy, but Kate viewed Doggett’s as a race where anything can happen. Elated and never disappointed at not winning, Kate says it really was about being part of something completely unique.
Doggett's Families & Traditions
Thames watermen are often from families who say they have the river running through their blood. The tradition of training as an apprentice and then competing for Doggett’s Coat and Badge is passed down through generations. Families such as the Phelps, with ten wins, are famous for their long and successful relationship with the race.
Chris Livett, a seventh-generation waterman, describes its importance:
I believe that it’s your duty, if you’re to be a waterman, to row in Doggett’s Coat and Badge. So long as you can row then you should participate. A lot of people have rowed Doggett’s under that premise, not necessarily enjoying rowing, not necessarily wanting to be part of that rowing scene, but just wanting to keep the culture and the heritage in place.
Each year the winner of the race, wearing their new red coat and badge, is presented to the Prime Warden of the Fishmongers’ Company, who hold a celebratory Presentation Dinner at Fishmonger’s Hall in honour of this ancient tradition. Living victors line the staircase to receive the winner and trumpets play a fanfare ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’. Prize money is also awarded to the rowing clubs of those taking part.
Doggett’s is a hugely important event to everyone who participates. Historically, when rowers were only eligible to enter once, stakes were incredibly high. Intense family rivalries led to stories of sabotage and fighting between favoured competitors desperate to win the title. Losers of the race have gone so far as to say that the defeat has ruined their lives, showing how treasured the title is.
Life After Doggett's
Winning Doggett’s doesn’t end with the race. After a winner is presented in their new red coat and badge at the grand ceremony at Fishmonger’s Hall, they continue to be asked to represent the watermen’s community in special functions and roles.
On the race day itself, Doggett’s winners will come dressed in their coat and badge to greet the winner at the finish line. Traditionally, the race’s umpire is also a former champion, a position currently held by Bobby Prentice.
Doggett’s winners also participate in the Lord Mayor’s Show, one of the City of London’s oldest and best-known traditions. Wearing their distinctive red coat and badge, the Doggett’s winners lead a procession of the newly elected Lord Mayor through the streets.
Doggett’s competitors are often chosen to be the Royal Bargemaster, a highly prestigious position that dates back to 1215. While the Royal Family use the River Thames for transport less frequently these days, the role still involves important ceremonial duties at coronations, royal weddings, jubilees and at parliament.
Perhaps the most unusual but also very prestigious duty is that of swan upping. Swan upping is an annual ceremony, dating back over 900 years. Although traditionally a process of marking swans and granting ownership from the Crown to livery companies, the main purpose today is to conduct a census of swans and check their health.
Swan uppers row up the river to gather the swans, and Doggett’s winners are often asked by the Crown to assist. As tradition would have it, “it’s easier to teach someone to catch a swan than to row”.
The Dwan Family
The Dwan family of Rotherhithe, London, have worked on the Thames for over 500 years. From mooring ships to working on passenger boats, tugs and barges, there isn’t much river industry that the family haven’t been involved with.
Ken Dwan was born in 1948 and started rowing as a child. At age 15 Ken became an apprentice lighterman under his grandfather William, enabling him to compete in races with fellow professionals. By age 20, Ken was competing in high profile events such as the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta. Later that year he travelled to Mexico City to compete in the summer Olympics, making it to the final.
Even though Ken competed at Olympic level, it’s Doggett’s that remains the defining race of his career. From a young age, going out on the river and learning the trade, his grandfather would talk to him about the significance of winning the race.
“My grandfather did like a drink every now and then. And they always used to say when he got half-drunk down at the Tilbury, he used to strip off to his vest and pants, turn a bench upside down, be given two broom handles… and he would row his Doggett’s Coat and Badge race!”
The Dwan family have the most living Doggett’s winners. Both Ken’s sons competed in Doggett’s, with Nicholas winning in 2002 and Robert in 2004. His brother, John, won in 1977, as did John’s son, Merlin, in 2012.
Ken is currently training his granddaughter to be the first female Doggett’s winner. When asked when she will be ready to compete, Ken replies, “well she’s only three, but we’re training her early!”
Watermen's Hall & the McCarthy Family
Watermen’s Hall was built in 1780, but the Company of Watermen dates back to 1555 when it was established to regulate the carrying of passengers by boat on the River Thames. Apprenticeships have been offered throughout time, and today the Company continues to support the development of skilled river workers, providing training and apprenticeships for the Boatmaster’s Licence.
Simon McCarthy is currently Master of the Company. The McCarthy family have a long and rich history of working on the river, stretching back four generations. Winning the prestigious Doggett’s Coat and Badge has become something of a tradition for the McCarthys', with Simon succeeding in 1984, his brother Jeremy in 1992 and his son Harry in 2015.
Simon has rowed in the World Championships and has coached Olympic teams. Still, he states: "Doggett’s wasn’t the hardest race I’ve rowed…but it was definitely the most difficult. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been, sitting on the start line, because it was for my family rather than me"
Simon believes his Doggett’s win opened lots of doors for his life on the river. He became the Rowing Officer for the Company, and then the Queen’s Waterman, before being made Master of the Company in 2017.
Through his work at the Company, and for London Youth Rowing, Simon McCarthy is determined to keep the traditions and legacy of Doggett’s alive. Rowing on the Thames has changed significantly in recent decades, but Simon is working to ensure that all young Londoners have access to training and that competitive rowing is an inclusive sport.
The Spencer Family & Rowing's Changing Demographic
The Spencer family can trace their connection to the Thames back 400 years. They owned the river’s first steam powered boat, The Greenwich Bell.
The family’s long tradition of watermen and lightermen continues today with brothers Chris and Roger Spencer. Both started rowing at a young age and attended Poplar, Blackwall and District rowing club after school.
At age 21, the pressure was on Roger to win Doggett’s. Their father made him practice the first half mile of the course many times, planning for every eventuality. Roger thrived and won the race in 1985. Two years later, aged 18, Chris Spencer won the National Junior Sculling Championships and was awarded a scholarship to Pennsylvania. He returned to London on his 21st birthday to compete in Doggett’s and won.
The rowing club continued to play a major role in their lives. When their father died, hundreds of people from the club attended his funeral. But the traditions of the club have changed a lot in recent years.
The demographics of the local community have shifted significantly and today the membership of the club has transformed from its original working-class roots to a varied membership, many of whom work in nearby Canary Wharf. Chris commented at a recent club dinner: "For years we used to have 150 east end people eating posh food, now we have 150 posh people eating east end food."
Chris encourages apprentice watermen to row competitively, but it’s not always a level playing field: "To be honest, nowadays, if you’re at Oxford or Cambridge, you have a bigger advantage over normal people because people have to work. But if you’re at university for four years…it’s all scheduled in."
Watermen of the Thames Today
Jobs on the Thames today are different to that of the past, but no less important. People continue to use the river to travel, and vessels are steered by men and women who have completed apprenticeships and obtained their Boatmaster’s Licence. Crown River Cruises and Livett’s Group are two examples of successful businesses currently operating on the river.
Brothers Bobby and Paul Prentice were born in Wapping and are the fourth generation of watermen in their family. Both were apprenticed to their father Robert and worked on London’s docks. Bobby won Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1973, along with races at Henley and in the National Championships. Paul then became Doggett’s champion in 1976.
As the docks closed, the Prentice family changed direction and in 1986 established Crown River Cruises along with Chas Newens. Starting with just one boat, the company now have five vessels and offer scheduled services between Westminster and Tower Bridge. The company also offer luxury cruises for private events.
Chris Livett is a seventh-generation waterman. He was the youngest Master of the Watermen’s Company, and is now a shipwright and liveryman, as well as one of the Directors of Livett’s Group. In 2018 Chris was appointed Bargemaster to Her Majesty The Queen, a highly prestigious role.
Livett’s Group has been operating on the Thames for over 40 years and now own one of the largest fleets of boats on the river. Their business is diverse, including spectacular PR and film work. Livett’s supported the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant and David Beckham’s stunt for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Their success illustrates the continued importance of the river globally.
The Future of Doggett's
Doggett’s Coat and Badge has been a race of resilience. Following the two World Wars, lost races were rowed back to back in 1920 and 1947. Doggett’s continues to be raced but some of the traditions have changed to ensure it remains relevant to the watermen of today. In 1988, entry qualification was extended to allow a person three attempts at the race, due to a decline in apprentices.
Today, MBNA Thames Clippers are one of the biggest employers on the river. CEO Sean Collins, a third-generation waterman, started the company in an attempt to return the Thames to the thriving working river it once was.
“It was the emptiness of the river and the Docklands piers to the east of Tower Bridge, that inspired me to deliver the vision we have today.”
Sean’s father had won Doggett’s in 1957, with Sean following his success in 1990, while also rowing at international level. When he employed Jude McGrane as a young apprentice at Thames Clippers, a condition was that Jude would compete in Doggett’s. In 2007, he raced and won.
When starting Thames Clippers in 1999, Sean wanted to instil a positive culture on the river, deliberately pushing for greater diversity and gender equality. Starting with just one boat, his company now carries over four million passengers a year and continues to grow.
As Sean comments: “Things have come full circle on the Thames. This major artery of ours has got to play a role in London’s future heartbeat.”
Doggett’s Coat and Badge is a poignant reminder of the central role watermen continue to play in the life of the Thames.