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doggett1_2501 August 1715 was the first instance of Doggett’s Coat and Badge rowing race between newly-qualified watermen, up the Thames from London Bridge to Chelsea. Unlike today, there were no further bridges to pass under and the river was almost entirely unembanked, hence considerably wider than today. Once past Westminster, the vista would have been comparatively sparce of buildings on both banks. The boats are notably different too. The original participants raced in the craft of their craft: a wherry, the London cab of its day.  Today, the racers are more fortunate, using modern Olympic class single skulls. This race has been competed almost every year since, making it the longest continuously-run sporting event in the world. Yet compared with the much newer Boat Race (1829), it is hardly known. The prize for the winner is a handsome scarlet coat decorated with a solid silver sleeve badge. It comes with a dinky matching cap. The badge depicts a leaping horse and the word “Liberty”. The founder of this ancient competition was Irish-born Thomas Doggett (1640 – 1721), an actor and successful theatrical impresario. He was and ardent Whig and supporter of the new Hanoverian monarch, George I. He endowed the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race in celebration of the new Georgian dynasty, leaving provision in his will for its continuation in perpetuity. It was supposed to be administered by the Watermen’s Company – logical – but an executor of Doggett’s will, Mr Burt of the Admiralty Office, instead charged the task to the Fishmongers’ Company, who do the job to this day. The fund in 1722 was £350.

Modern winners of the race on procession at St Katharine Dock, 2015.

Modern winners of the race in procession at St Katharine Dock, 2015.

There is a dedicated web site to the race, here. It has lots of information including history, the course, the rules, a list of every winner, etc. The line-up this year are: Louis Pettipher, 24, from Gravesend, Charlie Maynard, 23, from Erith, Dominic Coughlin, 24, from Cuxton, Ben Folkard, 23, from Maidstone all of whom raced last year, plus first-timers Frankie Ruler, 21, from Blackheath, and Perry Flynn, 21, from Kennington. The race starts at 11:30 at London Bridge tomorrow, 1 August. Approximately half an hour later it will finish at Cadogan Pier, Chelsea, next to Albert Bridge. I am meeting some fellow London Historians on Albert Bridge at 11:30 to see the end of contest. We’ll then go to the Cross Keys pub nearby. Anyone is welcome to join us.

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Today I spent a pleasant hour or so loafing by the Thames with a pair of fine gentlemen, Mr Woolf and Mr Shepherd.

We were there to witness the start of this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race at London Bridge, the oldest continuous sporting event in the world. Five recently-qualified young watermen (there can be up to six) row as fast as they can to Chelsea. The winner is awarded a fine scarlet coat and a silver badge. The race dates from 1715 and originally celebrated the accession the Hanoverian dynasty. It was sponsored by the Irish theatre impressario Thomas Doggett, an ardent Whig. Doggett was keen on watermen, for they who would frequently carry him from central London to his home in Chelsea, what became almost the exact route of the race. Or vice-versa, of course.

Update 15/7/2014: Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race now has its own website.

dogett's coat and badge

In those days there was no way of traversing the river upstream of London Bridge until you reached Kingston Bridge, except by boat. London Bridge itself was a difficult enough crossing anyway, clogged up as it was by houses and shops. So watermen provided a vital service to Londoners – they were the black cab equivalent of their day, as garrulous and opinionated as today’s cabbies apparently are. There were around 2,500 of them in the early 18th Century.

While wandering the dusty far corridors of the web, I found a rather nice piece of verse celebrating the Thames. It’s by the 17 century waterman John Taylor, who called himself the Water Poet. It’s an extract from an enormous piece called In Praise of Hemp-Seed , published in 1630, but probably penned a little earlier. Taylor first compares the river favourably with any in the world, he then describes the bounty it bestows and finally laments how we neglectful Londoners pay it back with shit and ordure. One can only wonder what our 17C environmentalist would have made of it two hundred years later. Anyway, it goes like this.

The names of the most famous riuers in the world.

Maze, Rubicon, Elue, Volga, Ems, Scamander,
Loyre, Moldoue, Tyber, Albia, Seyne, Meander,
Hidaspes, Indus, Inachus, Tanaies,
(Our Thames true praise is farre beyond their praise)
Great Euphrates, Iordane, Nilus, Ganges, Poe,
Tagus and Tygris, Thames doth farre out-goe.
Danubia, Ister, Xanthus, Lisus, Rhrine,
Wey, Seuerne, Auon, Medway, Isis, Tine,
Dee, Ouze, Trent, Humber, Eske, Tweed, Annan, Tay,
Firth (that braue Demy-ocean) Clide, Dun, Spay,
All these are great in fames, and great in names,

But great’st in goodnesse is the riuer Thames,
From whose Diurnall and Nocturnall flood
Millions of soules haue fewell cloathes and food ;
Which from twelue houres to twelue doth still succeed,
Hundreds, & thousands both to cloath & feed,
Of watermen, their seruants, children, wiues,
It doth maintaine neere twenty thousand liues.
I can as quickly number all the starres,
As reckon all things in particulars :

Which by the bounty of th’All-giuing giuer
Proceeds from this most matchlesse, famous Riuer.
And therefore ’tis great pitty, shelfe or sand
From the forgetfull and ingratefull land,
Should it’s cleare chrystall entrailes vilefy,
Or soyle such purenesse with impurity.
What doth it doe, but serues our full contents,
Brings food, and for it takes our excrements,
Yeelds vs all plenty, worthy of regard
And dirt and mucke we giue it for reward ?

You can sift through the whole hemp-seed poem  here.

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The Monument LondonI’m ashamed to say after more than three decades in this wonderful city, I had not been up the Monument. Today we got our act together and climbed the 311 steps to the viewing platform of this most handsome column, bequeathed us by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. It costs £3 and when you return to ground level, they give you a rather nice certificate to commemorate your feat. The Monument was erected in six years between 1671 and 1677  to commemorate the Great Fire of London. It is at its own height in distance (202 feet) from the bakery in Pudding Lane where the fire started.

The panorama from the viewing platform near the top is as agreeable as you might expect. There is a particularly fine view of Tower Bridge just downriver and the all-but-complete Shard to the south. As you peek down across Lower Thames Street you can see the Wren church of St Magnus Martyr with its magnificent old clock (1711). This is where old London Bridge traversed the Thames (its current incarnation is about a hundred yards upstream).

The Monument London

The Monument London

The Monument London

The Monument London

The Monument London

St Magnus Martyr in front of the site of old London Bridge.

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Today during some Twitter banter, London Historians member and  John Keats expert Suzie Grogan mentioned Keats’ statue at Guy’s Hospital. Strange place for a tragic poet, thought I. As it happened, I had wanted to visit Guy’s for some time to inspect an alcove from Old London Bridge which found its way there after the bridge was demolished and replaced in 1831. I had an hour to spare this afternoon so I nipped down there. Imagine my delight to discover that the statue in question is of Keats actually sitting in the alcove itself. Wonderful. Old London Bridge was still standing during Keats’ short life, so he may have stopped off in one of these alcoves, maybe this very one.

And the Guy’s thing? Keats was a medical student there. I didn’t know that.

old london bridge alcove, guy's hospital

john keats statue, guy's hospital

Update 1: For more on scattered remains of Old London Bridge, The Great Wen has a recent post here.

Update 2: The above-mentioned Suzie Grogan has written a post about Keats’ time at Guy’s here.

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Crossing the River by Brian CooksonSetting up London Historians this past two months has seriously curbed my book reading. Whereas I’d normally expect to do a book in a week, it has taken me nearly a month to read Brian Cookson’s Crossing the River, subtitle: The History of London’s Thames Bridges from Richmond to the Tower. The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed articles on Old London Bridge and Westiminster Bridge which Brian wrote for us, which are posted on the web site here. (Acrobat (.pdf) files).

So does this allow me to write a balanced item about the book? Absolutely. If I didn’t like it I simply would not have covered it. In fact, you will never see a negative book review on this blog, because what’s the point? I’m not a professional book reviewer and besides,  I’m only interested in spending time on a blog post to share something I think you’ll enjoy.

Cookson has arranged the book in geographical order, west to east, as the title suggests. This can be a little disconcerting for those used to reading history chronologically, but I think it works rather well. Each bridge has its own story, all are fascinating and no two are remotely similar. There are intriguing tales behind the funding of the structures (a dry topic amply and often amusingly redeemed by the author);  arguments, lobbying, tolls and vested interests; war; the architects and engineers; the local areas and how bridges affected them.

What struck me is how cheaply the earlier bridges were constructed compared to the mid-20th century onwards, even taking into account inflation. Also notable is how late the Thames got properly bridged, given its pre-eminent global status from the 18th Century onwards. Up until the early 1700s, Old London Bridge stood proud as the only road crossing in what is now the greater London area. Of the 40 or so bridges described, 19 were built during the Victorian period and a further 12 in the 20th and 21st Centuries. When it comes to feats of engineering, once again it was the Victorians wot done it.

A very pleasing feature is that most of the prominent builders are given separate pen portraits covering their careers, among them Rennie, Barry, Jones, Clark, Locke, Walker, Page and, of course, Bazalgette and Brunel.

Cookson has an informal, easy style which pushes you along Crossing the River‘s 300 pages with ease and pleasure.

Crossing the River: The History of London’s Thames River Bridges from Richmond to the Tower. Mainstream Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1840189762.

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