Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Changing History

It is sometimes difficult to understand how organisations and events which have existed for many years, sometimes centuries can be quietly taken over, changed beyond recognition but still claim to be continuations of the original.  A bit like the Labour Party after the Blairite takeover.

Bur for the moment I have in mind the Doggett Coat and Badge race which happens on the Thames every year, in September these days, and is claimed to be a continuation of a race established in 1715.

Well yes there is a race with that name which has been held on the Thames since that time but it is nonsense to suggest that it is the same race.

I do not denigrate modern day winners in any way, but a race between two young athletes, members of rowing clubs in light weight skiffs is not the same race as one rowed by young working lightermen, against five other competitors in the heavy wherries which were the working boats of the Thames watermen.


It is difficult to tell from the list of winners here when the competitors did not need to be working watermen or even been apprenticed to the trade as was the case in the beginning. Originally it was a race for  young watermen “in the first year of their freedom” of the Watermen’s Company and the course was four and a half miles from London Bridge to Chelsea. A  considerable test of endurance and boatmanship especially  until 1873  when the race was  rowed against the tide. This probably accounts for the difference in the time take of just over an hour and half compared to the times these days of about twentyfive minutes.

At the time that the race was won by our ancestor Francis Jury in 1809 this was the case as was evidenced by the places they were from as shown on the list: Hermitage, Lambeth, Horseleydown, Bermondsey, etc.  Nineteenth century lightermen earned their living by steering the large flat-bottomed barges into which they had offloaded cargo from the ships coming into the river.  No mechanical method of propulsion, no motors or steam engines, just use of the tide with a long oar for steering.  A skill learned from seven years apprenticeship under an experienced master.  Tough work by any measure.

These days membership of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames do not need to have been apprenticed to the craft and almost anyone can become a Freeman.  It is amusing to speculate how many Freemen of the Company who have just paid their dues would be comfortable in  one of these small craft on the sometimes bumpy waters of the Thames.