… a rite of passage.
Almost lost on the wide stretch of river, three scullers make their way upstream towards Lambeth Bridge.
The annual Doggett’s Coat and Badge race this year saw three competitors rowing their boats in this tough challenge: Riess Ballard, Matthew Brookes and Emily Hickman.
The four mile, seven furlong route from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier, rowed on the flood tide, is a difficult course, with piers, obstacles, moored boats, bridges, and eddies around them to negotiate. Not forgetting the ever-changing caprices of the weather. It is a demanding test of contenders’ skills and knowledge of the Thames.
The Wager, set up by Thomas Doggett in 1715, is open to watermen and lightermen, aged between 21 and 27, in their first year of ‘freedom’, after completing their apprenticeship.* It is run by the Fishmongers’ Company and the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames and is an important annual fixture highlighting the traditional culture and life of the river.
All three competitors belong to the well-known Poplar, Blackwall & District Rowing Club where they underwent their training. Apart from successfully nurturing talent for national and international events, the Club has produced many winners of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager.
Matthew Brookes joined CPBS, Capital Pleasure Boats, in 2015 when he was sixteen. Leading the race as he reached Lambeth Bridge, he had the misfortune to capsize in rough conditions further on and was swiftly rescued.
Riess Ballard, a Captain at the Livett’s Group, was rowing steadily as he approached Lambeth Bridge and went on to win the race.
Emily Hickman is the daughter of Alex Hickman who sadly died in December 2020. He was much loved and appreciated for all that he did for the Thames river community and, as Training Officer for the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, he helped many young apprentices with their studies and practical training. For Emily, taking part in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager must have been especially poignant, as memories of her father, who ‘bound’ her into the Company in 2018, and who back in 1996 had also taken part in the same race, would have been on her mind.
Emily Hickman is only the third woman to compete in the race. She came second. Clare Burran raced in 1992 coming third out of five, and Kate Saunders took part three times, coming third out of four in 2000.
The winner’s prize is the traditional scarlet coat, cap and silver badge, and Riess will be presented with his in November at a celebratory dinner in the Fishmonger’s Hall.
Quite by chance I spotted a lone sculler on Lambeth Reach a few days before the race, and later discovered that it was Riess, with time off work for a practice run. A while later, his boat safely stowed on Livett’s BRAVO LIMA GB, he was taken back downstream.
Sources and further information
Account of this year’s Wager: The Company of Watermen & Lightermen of the River Thames
Article in Country Life by Martin Fone, August 6, 2022.
Article by Tim Koch in Hear the Boat Sing, July 22, 2023.
*The Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager, 2021 article with details of the origin of the race and its history, July 11, 2021.
Thanks for information to Ben @liquid_highway1 and @ChrisLivett