Doggett’s Coat & Badge, a wager race for Thames Watermen established by Thomas Doggett in 1715, is still competed for today between London Bridge & Chelsea. Initially staged on August 1st to mark the accession of George I, the date of the race now varies according to the tides. Doggett was an Irish actor & comedian who, as many successful actors did in those times, also went on to manage a few West End theatres. Wager races were a common occurrence amongst Watermen but the fact that Doggett gave a prize of a fine coat & badge to be competed for by newly qualified men, seemed to make his race stand out from the rest. There is even a pub, at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge, that still bears the name of the race. Well it certainly used to bear the name, it is now a bit of a modern monstrosity and is called “Doggett’s”, as is the trend these days. Why have The Red Lion, when you can just call it “Red’s”, or The Victory to “V’s”. We can only be thankful that there isn’t a pub called The Twatting Arms.
Reading a book based on the lives of Watermen & the race itself, it really dawned on me how these men are the direct antecedents of cab drivers. Watermen, and Lightermen their cargo carrying cousins, still exist today although not in anywhere near the same numbers that they did when the river was THE means of transport for London. This isn’t to say that as transport needs changed in London Watermen immediately deserted their trade to become hackney carriage drivers, nothing could have been further from the truth in fact. As London developed and new bridges were built, Watermen could, however, see the writing on the wall and even managed to get £25,000 compensation when Westminster Bridge was built in 1750. I don’t recall a similar level of compensation, or indeed any at all, being forthcoming when the Heathrow Express started. But ultimately there is no doubting the direct link from Watermen to what I now do as a living. You don’t have to dig very deep to find the parallels between the job I do in 2009 and the job Watermen were performing in the early 18th century. Known for their “colourful” language and being fiercely protective of their trade, they also carried many more traits of the modern cabbie. For me avoiding bilkers (non-payers), read Watermen dodging roaring boys (young, rich drunks – think City Bankers) and runners (non-payers). The cliché that cab drivers will never go south of the river can be directly traced back to these times, to the fact that Bankside was a pretty lawless place that Watermen avoided. Whilst offering the potential of plenty of trade, the fact that the whole of Bankside was filled with people enjoying pleasures of one form or other meant the chance of your punter being a right royal pain in the arse was pretty high. So Watermen would stay over on the north bank and keep to the plying stairs that they knew would supply steady and reliable punters. Better a longer wait between jobs than dealing with drunks and then not being paid for you efforts. Then there was the not insignificant matter of the Thames tides. Being in the right place at the right time was hugely important for Watermen, being upstream of London Bridge at the wrong time could be positively dangerous. Shooting the arches when the fall of water was so high from one side of the bridge to the other was a mug’s game, and most punters would walk downstream of the Bridge before taking a wherry anyway. For the tides of the Thames, think modern day rush hour. Annoying as it is for you to be refused by a cab driver there is, normally, at least some logic to that decision. Rather than have to go too far out of the centre when there are plenty of fares to had, the job that you think is nice & lucrative to the cabbie, isn’t quite so attractive if he has to travel all the way back into town empty, while his colleagues are filling their boots in town. Moan about us as people do, who wouldn’t given the same choices, go for the option that earns them the most money in the quickest time? These are the decisions that Watermen in 1715 would be making all the time and they are decisions that I’m making all the time in 2009. Although, to be fair to myself, I’ve never been a refuser of fares and I’m even less inclined to do so now.
This year’s race is on July 10th, starting from London Bridge at 12:30pm and I’m planning on trying to watch at least the start of it. I’ve also been thinking that a modern day cabbies version of the race would be kinda fun. Anyone want to be the new Thomas Doggett?