Doggett’s Coat & Badge Race is the oldest annually contested event in the British sporting calendar and the oldest rowing race in the world. Started in 1715 by Irish actor Thomas Doggett, joint manager of Drury Lane Theatre, it takes its name from the prize: a scarlet coat and silver arm badge.
The race runs from London Bridge to Chelsea’s Cadogan Pier, a distance of 4 miles 5 furlongs (7,400 m), and was originally rowed by young watermen (the black cabbies of their day) in their first year of freedom of the Waterman’s Company. While the watermen initially used the heavy wherries that ferried passengers across the Thames and raced against the tide, they now use modern lightweight sculls and go with the incoming tide.
Doggett organised the race until his death in 1721, after which it was taken over by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. Although some claim he started it as thanks after a waterman hauled him out of the river one night after he fell in while drunk, the more prosaic explanation is that it commemorates the accession of King George I. The silver badge shows the horse of the House of Hanover and the word ‘Liberty’.
The record for the race is 23 minutes 22 seconds, though it usually takes about 30mins. In 2010, it took an hour due to severe headwinds. The date every year varies according to tidal conditions but it is usually run in mid-July.