Philip Barker

He took up sculling to follow the example of his brother but victory in the oldest sporting race of them all may inspire Louis Pettipher to emulate Mark Hunter by winning an Olympic gold medal.

Like Hunter before him, Pettipher is qualified a waterman working on craft which use the River Thames in London. He was a convincing winner of the historic Doggetts Coat and Badge race to add his name to a roll of honour which goes back fully 300 years.

“See me in Team GB next year,” he said. Tokyo 2020 may well be a more realistic prospect. “Rowing is a new sport for me. I only took up rowing to compete in the Doggetts but I am a very determined person and will give it a real go.”

He may well have already accomplished the hard part if Kenny Dwan, a rowing Olympian in 1968 and Doggetts winner in 1971, is to be believed.

“Doggett’s was probably the hardest race I ever rowed," he said. "The Olympics was a multi-lane international event, but Doggetts had more pressure on it because all of our families had worked on the river for many, many years. I was told by my grandfather that I had to be the first one in my family to win the Coat and Badge.”

Appropriately the 300th anniversary race was one to remember. The six competitors received a send-off from the Royal row barge Gloriana and the race proved a wonderful contest which was still in doubt when they reached Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was only then that Pettipher made his decisive break.

Louis Pettipher was a convincing winner of the historic Doggetts Coat and Badge race
Louis Pettipher was a convincing winner of the historic Doggetts Coat and Badge race ©Philip Barker

“The race wasn’t over until the last two minutes, it was tight all the way. To see three in a row at Westminster; they were literally overlapping,” said race umpire Bobby Prentice.

Organisers claim this is the oldest continuously run event in world sport. It is certainly the oldest rowing event, though the Oxford v Cambridge University Boat Race, which begun in 1829, is now better known.

Organisers had scheduled the 2015 Doggetts for the first weekend in August, the very anniversary of the accession of the British King George I, in whose honour the race had been established. The man behind it all was an actor called Thomas Doggett who managed the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the early years of the 18th century.

A short paragraph in the Daily Courant newspaper in 1716 gave further details.

“This being the day of His Majesty’s happy accession, there will be given by Mr Doggett, an orange colour livery, with a badge representing Liberty to be rowed for six watermen that were out of their time in the year past. They are to row from London Bridge to Chelsea and will be continued annually on the same day for ever.”

When Doggett died a few years later, the terms of his will did indeed provide for the race to be continued. The organisation passed to the Fishmongers, one of the historic livery companies in the City of London.

In those early days the river was very busy so there were more watermen than could be accommodated. They drew lots for the right to compete. Later qualifying races were introduced.

Crowds along the banks were huge and with little concern for health and safety. In 1720, the British Gazetteer reported “a man standing on the sterlings of the bridge to see the Doggetts Coat and Badge fell into the river and was drowned”. He was not the only casualty.

The scullers approach the Houses of Parliament
The scullers approach the Houses of Parliament ©Philip Barker

In 1773, the race was won by one John Frogley, but within a fortnight came the sad news that he had “drowned by accident”.

By the late 18th century, the river was often very busy on race day.

One report talked of 200 boats following the racing.”it was a cheerful sight to see them all in motion following the firing of the pistol.”

Often it was so crowded that the competitors struggled to find a way through the throng of boats.

In 1820, the Morning Post reported “the river and the banks exhibited an unusually gay scene, several bands of music played on the water, and the gentlemen belonging to the “Funny club”, (this was a sailing club).

It was not uncommon for foul tactics to cause a restart.

“There were a great number of boats on the river and as usual there were accusations of fouling by the friends of each party interfering,” said one report in the early 19th century.

In 1842, James Liddey of Wandsworth won a re-started race by two lengths and an eye witness “this was said to be the best wager seen for a Coat and Badge seen for many years and we never remember to have seen it so well attended”.

But even by the end of the 19th century, many were lamenting that the race was no longer the big draw it had once been.

Race umpire Bobby Prentice wears the livery of the umpire
Race umpire Bobby Prentice wears the livery of the umpire ©Philip Barker

In 1897, the year after the modern Olympics were revived in Athens, the Daily Mail complained that “the glories of the Thames watermen have somewhat dimmed of late years”.

In the 20th century the situation became worse, especially after the docks in the East End closed.

Most watermen now operate the pleasure craft on the river and today there are so few that the rules allow those who compete unsuccessfully to return the following year for another attempt.

In the three centuries since, John Opey took possession of his distinctive garment in 1715, the value of the prizes has fluctuated according to the funds available. Now the race has commercial sponsorship by Thames Tideway, Cluttons, Wintech Racing and Pinchbeck watchmakers.

Pettipher will have to wait until a special ceremony later in the year to receive his Coat and Badge, but has already been presented with an additional prize, a commemorative watch engraved with the insignia of the race.