Wagers & Betting
Doggett's winners were once celebrities. Cigarette card featuring Eric Phelps, who won Doggett's Coat and Badge in 1933. Thomas E.Weil Collection / © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames
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.