Today (August 1) in London History – the Oldest Sporting Event

Some say it’s the oldest continuously running sporting event in the world. It started in London on August 1st, 1715. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s like a game show. I’m going to turn over ten cards. One at a time. Each card’s got a name on it. Each name is a clue. Separately – or taken together – they all point to the mystery guest.

Let’s see how you fare.

Turning over the first card: Deputy Nincompoop. 

Second card: Fondlewife.

Third card: Sir Tristram Cash.

Fourth card: Hob.

Fifth card: Sir Oliver

Sixth card: Marplot

Seventh card: Mass Johnny

Eighth card: Solon

Ninth card: Savil

Tenth card: Sancho Panza.

Anybody get it? Ah, more’s the pity.

Well, it was a stacked deck.

The cards – I suppose they’re face cards – are the names of roles, characters created by and made famous by the late 17th-century early 18th-century Irish actor Thomas Doggett. 

Thomas Doggett was born in Dublin in 1670. He started his working life as a strolling player. Made his way to London when he was 21. He got here and made it big. Playing Deputy Nincompoop at Drury Lane in a play called Love for Money. 

Aside here: we don’t have a verifiable portrait of Thomas Doggett. But we’ve got a likely suspect. The hoary old Garrick Club – the actors’ and artists’ and writers’ club in Covent Garden has a portrait believed to be of Thomas Doggett. And sure enough, London Walks has a guide who’s a member of the Garrick – the distinguished actor Nick Day.  So when Nick gets back from America I’m going to talk him into photographing that portrait and up it will go on the Good Ship London Walks.

Now here’s the thing, all of that – Thomas Doggett’s fine acting career – is by the by. 

Thomas Doggett is important for something else. And today’s his day. This Irish actor – this very successful Irish actor – was an ardent Whig. 

He was a big fan of the House of Hanover. The first of whom was George I. George I’s accession was on August 1, 1714. So, on August 1, 1715 – to mark the first anniversary of the accession of the House of Hanover – Thomas Doggett arranged for a boat race on the Thames. Each boat to be rowed by six young Watermen. The winners to receive a coat and a badge. That was the prize. The coat was a traditional red watermen’s coat. The badge was a big silver badge affixed to the upper left arm of the coat. The badge represented Liberty, in commemoration of the accession of the House of Hanover. 

It’s over 300 years later and sure enough the current winner’s badge prominently features the word Liberty and an image of a horse, which was the emblem of the House of Hanover.

The race starts at London Bridge and rows upstream to Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. That’s nearly seven and a half kilometres – four miles and five furlongs to be exact. 

And why that course and why a boat race? Simples. Thomas Doggett’s work was in London.  That’s where the theatres were. His home was in Chelsea. The watermen were the taxi drivers of the day. They were the trade who made Thomas Doggett’s existence possible. There’s also a legend that one day he fell overboard whilst crossing the Thames near where Embankment Station is. A waterman fished him out. Saved his life.

The race was originally intended to be held the first day of August forever. But now it often occurs in September, with the precise date and time depending on the tides.

What’s not in question is that it’s the oldest boat race in the world. Some authorities go further. They say it’s the longest-running sporting event in the world. Obviously the Olympics go back nearly three millennia. But there was about a two and a half thousand-year hiatus between the ancient Olympics and the modern Olympics. 

The Doggett’s Coat and Badge race has been running continuously since it started, over three centuries ago. Well, that was the line I was putting out in bygone times when a Thameside walk took us to the pub called Doggets Coat and Badge. Understandably, people were always curious about that weird name – Doggett’s Coat and Badge is the name of this pub, what in the world’s that all about? I’d explain. 

Now, given what came our way two and half years ago – the pandemic, the Lockdowns – I’m going to have to check whether that unbroken record was maintained in 2020 and 2021. Watch this space. 

Anyway, it’s a lovely London tale.

Nothing to add. No, that’s not true. There is something to add. Something delightful to add. Something seems to be going on with August 1st. There’s something decidedly watery about August 1st and London. To wit: on August 1st, 1820 the Regent’s Canal was opened. 

On August 1st, 1831 John Rennie’s new London Bridge was opened.

On August 1st, 1965 a new group called – wait for it – the Steam Packet was the supporting group for the Rolling Stones at the London Palladium. It featured vocals by a certain Rod Stewart.

The common denominator for all of those August 1st London events is H2O, water.

And there’s one more we can add, on August 1, 1861 the Times published the first ever weather forecast for the general public. And the forecast was: blue skies, a perfect day for a boat race.

Halcyon days. Halcyon days indeed. Yes, we’ve got a bonus card we’re going to turn over now. We learn from The Original Weekly Journal for the week of August 23, 1718 – that Thomas Doggett, who was already rolling, “has married a gentlewoman of £20,000 fortune.”

Married her. And outlived her. Dare I say it, “the luck of the Irish.”

And, yes, the Today in London recommendation is achingly obvious. Find out when this year’s Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race is taking place. And watch it. Maybe watch it from the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Pub. The pub’s right by Blackfriars Bridge, on the south bank. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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