London to the Nore 1

Westminster and the Houses of Parliament

A look back to early 20th-century images of theThames in the company of W. L. and Mrs Wyllie through their book London to the Nore, published in 1905.
William Wyllie was a well-known and distinguished marine artist who lived from 1851 to 1931. Born in Camden, London, son of artist William Morrison Wyllie, his talent was recognised when young, winning the Turner Gold Medal when he was only eighteen. In 1889 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. An enthusiastic sailing fan from his early youth, he was drawn to maritime subjects, painting and etching all kinds of boats from large naval vessels to fishing and sailing boats, which he was said to have executed in accurate detail. However, The Royal Naval Museum notes that: “It was his etchings and watercolours showing working life on the Thames and the Medway that brought him widespread popularity.” And reading this beautifully illustrated book you can see why.

Published by A & C Black, 1905

The text written by Mrs. Marion Wyllie, describes sailing and being towed up the river to their starting point at Westminster for the journey back downstream to the Nore. Marion Wyllie’s engaging style with its blend of history, knowledge of the river and boats, and details of family life aboard bring readers close to their experience.

An example of this might have some resonance today… One evening, after an outing ashore where she came across a thieves’ lodging house, which was still occupying her thoughts, she “became aware of a slight sound on the other side of our hull.” Her husband was asleep, and her sons busy talking had evidently heard nothing, she writes, “So I get up without noise and cross the deck, kneeling by the bulwarks and peeping over. The water is in deep shadow under our side, and at first I can see nothing; then I am sure I hear a whisper, and see something dark that I make out to be a boat close to our lee-board.” She wakes her husband who calls out “Hullo! What are you doing there? A very respectful voice answers ‘We are the water-police, sir, on the lookout for some men who have been stealing coal from this tier. I hope you don’t mind us holding on, as this bit of shadow is an advantage to us. Some of us will be here all night: so you will be all right.’ She adds that “with a great sense of security” everyone returned to their cabins.

Cleopatra’s needle and Somerset House

For around twenty years from the early 1870s, Wyllie was a regular contributor to the weekly illustrated magazine The Graphic, for which he drew black and white illustrations of all things maritime. He spent time at sea working for the White Star shipping line and served with the Royal Navy during the First World war spending a month on H.M.S. Revenge at the time of the Armistice in 1919.

But it was, as mentioned above, his series of etchings of the Port of London, its commercial and industrial life and the movements and variety of shipping, that really brought him to the attention of a wider and appreciative public.

St. Paul’s Cathedral seen from Flower and Evrett’s Wharf, Bankside
View of London from the upper span of Tower Bridge
The Upper Pool
Billingsgate fish market, with London Bridge and the Church of St. Magnus
The Custom House and Billingsgate
The Tower of London
Tower Bridge with the bascules up

Wyllie moved to Portsmouth in 1906 and became closely involved with the restoration of H.M.S. VICTORY, organising campaigns to raise the funds to move her into dry dock and overseeing the work on her preservation. He died in 1931 and was laid to rest with full naval honours at Portchester Castle.

William Wyllie had lived life to the full. In the foreword to W. L. Wyllie: marine artist: 1851-1931, published in 1981, Sir Hugh Casson wrote of Wyllie’s love of boats. “He designed them, cared for them sailed them and above all he never ceased to draw and paint them in every size and shape and in all weathers.” He adds that Wyllie drew them “accurately, affectionately and above all with deep practical understanding.”

In articles that follow their journey from Tower Bridge, I will post further images and occasional anecdotes from Marion Wyllie’s account of their journey from Westminster to the Nore.

Sources and further information
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The National Museum of the Royal Navy
We Were One, 1935, a biography of W.L. Wyllie by his wife M.A. Wyllie
W.L. Wyllie: marine artist, 1981 by R. Quarm and J. Wyllie

Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager, June 25, 2021…

…from Lambeth Bridge

Walking by the Thames between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier on the morning of Friday June 25th, you might have noticed a little more activity than usual on the river. What you would have seen were the four competitors rowing single sculls in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager, an annual contest that has been in continuous existence on this stretch of the river since 1715. And preceding, or following them were support boats, press boats, and party boats of invited family, friends and colleagues.
The race was originally run between two Thames-side pubs: from the Old Swan Tavern at London Bridge to the Swan Inn at Chelsea. The route is now four miles seven furlongs long, from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier. The record for the fastest time to complete the course, 23 minutes and 22 seconds, chalked up in 1973, is still held by Bobby Prentice, Bargemaster to the Fishmongers’ Company, and now race umpire. And it is the Fishmongers’ Company, who fulfilled a promise to Thomas Doggett to make sure that the race took place every year after his death. However, since 2019 the Company of Watermen and Lightermen have taken over the management of the race and are now in partnership with the Fishmongers’ Company.

First raced in 1715, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager came into being as a result of Irish actor Thomas Doggett’s gratitude to the Thames Watermen of the day. And legend suggests that it was for one of two reasons. According to the ‘History of the Wager’ on the site of the Company of Watermen & Lightermen, the first was that “while returning home from the theatre one night he fell into the river and was rescued by a waterman.” The second was that conditions on the Thames were so bad that among the watermen only “one young, newly appointed waterman agreed to row him across the Thames, and did so safely.” Neither of these versions can be verified but what is documented is “that he organised the race himself until his death in 1721”, and from then on it took place every year according to instructions he left in his will. Six races were postponed from 1915 – 1919 during the First World War but rescheduled over two days in 1920. Races were held up again during the Second World War but those missed took place over two days in 1947, so that there is an unbroken list of yearly winners since the creation of the competition. It was then the covid pandemic that caused a third postponement, so the race this June, was in fact the one due in 2020. The 2021 race will take place on September 8th.

The Wager is open to watermen and lightermen in the first year of what is known as their ‘freedom’, after completing their apprenticeship, and they must be aged between 21 and 27. They are allowed up to four tries for the prize, which is a traditional waterman’s coat “crimson red with a silver arm badge depicting Liberty, the horse of the House of Hanover” in honour of the accession of George I to the throne in 1714. It’s a striking combination, and Doggett’s winners are proud to own and wear it.

The Doggett’s badge fixed onto the arm of their famous red coat. © Ben Fitzpatrick for the PLA

The four competitors on this occasion were: James Berry, captain with Thames Clippers, dressed in white; Max Carter-Miller, of Thames Marine Services, in black; Coran Cherry of Thames Clippers in pale blue; and George Gilbert, of Capital Pleasure Boats, in red.

The photographs of the contestants below were taken from vantage points on Lambeth Bridge so as to capture their approach from Westminster Bridge. I have grouped pictures of their supporting boats with them, though some went on through to Cadogan Pier ahead of the race. The photographs at the end of the piece were kindly lent by the Port of London Authority and Ben of Liquid Highway.

Racing in white, James Berry, the eventual winner
Family and friends on board M.V. MERCURIA supporting James Berry
Wearing white caps to echo James Berry’s race colours, his supporters enjoy their trip
Photographers on clipper ORION, there to capture James Berry’s race

The Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager often created a great deal of public interest in London and was regularly reported in some detail in the press. An account in The Times on August 2nd, 1864 described the scene: “…thousands of spectators, afloat and ashore, the banks, bridges, and craft in the whole of the long course between London-bridge and Chelsea being densely crowded with persons anxious to view a part of the race.” There was a great number of tugs, and the river literally swarmed with boats of every size, including steamers and barges.
Reports also carried details of the races themselves with navigational difficulties, tactics, and changes in the fortunes of the contestants, particularly dealing with the currents around the bridges, swifter and more complex since the construction of the central London embankments between 1864 and 1874.
There is a good report on this year’s race with photos by Tim Koch on Hear The Boat Sing.

Max Carter-Miller rowing swiftly towards Lambeth Bridge
Max Carter-Miller’s supporters on M.V. PRIDE OF LONDON, many wearing black to echo his race colours
Max Carter-Miller’s supporters heading towards Chelsea to watch the race finish

In 1938, there were only two competitors in the race and The Times report that year mentions how completing the course could once take nearly an hour and a half but that things had speeded up “now the race is rowed on the flood, instead of against the ebb, and in outriggers instead of old heavy wherries – the working boats in which the competitors plied for hire.” With the race only rowed on the flood tide, the times became much quicker. James Berry won this race in a swift 25 minutes 31 seconds but Bobby Prentice’s record still holds good.

Coran Cherry in his light blue race colours, with DHL COMET Clipper keeping watch over him
M.V. GOLDEN FLAME carrying Coran Cherry’s supporters

Last year the race was won by Patrick Keech, from Hextable, near Dartford, after a close ‘fight to the finish’ with this year’s winner, James Berry. And among previous winners are Sean Collins, chief executive and co-founder of Thames Clippers, who won in 1990, and Michael Russell of the Port of London Authority, who won in 1997.

George Gilbert in red, approaching Lambeth Bridge
M.V. GOLDEN JUBILEE carrying George Gilbert’s supporters
Some red flags and one or two supporters echoing George Gilbert’s racing red

The race was umpired by Bobby Prentice, whose boat SARAHANNE remained close to the contestants. It was followed by Thames Limo’s BOURNE carrying representatives of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen; WINDRUSH 46, carrying several press photographers; Port Health Authority vessel LONDINIUM III; and the Port of London Authority vessel BARNES.

Race Umpire Bobby Prentice, and next to him sitting, Assistant Umpire Ken Dwan, owner of Thames Cruises
Thames Limo‘s BOURNE carrying spectators including Mrs Gina Blair, the 194th Master of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames; Colin Middlemiss, Clerk of the Company; Richard Turk; and Philip Otto
Press Boat: WINDRUSH 46
LONDINIUM III Port Health Authority vessel in attendance
Port of London Authority vessel BARNES keeping a watchful eye on the race

Having finished the tough course, the contestants celebrate together.

They made it! George Gilbert in red, of Capital Pleasure Boats; James Berry, the winner, in white, of Thames Clippers; Max Carter Miller in black, from Thames Marine Services; and Coran Cherry, in light blue, of Thames Clippers. © Ben Fitzpatrick for the PLA
James Berry’s family and supporters enjoying his moment of glory after the hard won race. © The liquid Highway
James Berry with his proud parents. © Ben Fitzpatrick for the PLA

The race is a real test of determination and strength and the rowers need to have a good knowledge of the currents and flow associated with every twist and turn of the river and each particular bridge. When the race first began, there was just one, London Bridge, now there are eleven. Earlier races could take place against against the tide but with the embankment of the central London Thames and the consequent increase of tidal flows, they have have been rowed with the tide since 1873.

Sources and further information
The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames
Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race
Hear The Boat Sing
London Metropolitan Archives
Thames Limo
The Liquid Highway
The Port of London Authority
The Thames Festival Trust

*The race on June 25th was the race postponed from 2020 and the 2021 race will take place on September 8th. See the countdown here: The Doggett’s Race
*For those unfamiliar with these terms: Lightermen carry cargo from larger moored ships to docks, and Watermen carry passengers in a variety of boats.

Doggett’s Coat and Badge, June 25, 2021