PortCities London

Thames Watermen

Thames regattas and races

Rowing races

The earliest formal rowing race on the Thames was started by Thomas Doggett in 1715. Since then many other rowing races and regattas have taken place on the river.

Following the same idea as Doggett’s race, some of these offered a waterman’s coat with a decorative silver arm badge as the prize. Others had prize cups, medals or skiff backboards specially painted to commemorate the event.

Three silver arm badges.
View full size imageThree silver prize arm badges. © NMM
A skiff backboard won at the Greenwich Regatta of 1852.
View full size imageA skiff backboard won at the Greenwich Regatta of 1852. © NMM
Skiff backboard, Royal Victoria  & Albert Docks Regatta 1886
View full size imageSkiff backboard, Royal Victoria  Albert Docks Regatta, 1886. © NMM
Prize backboard from skiff Jennie, Greenwich Regatta, 1888
View full size imagePrize backboard from skiff Jennie, Greenwich Regatta, 1888. © NMM

Generations of racers

Often, watermen passed down their skills from father to son for generations, so that particular families became well known on the Thames for their rowing prowess. Freemen of the Watermen’s Company have gone on to become champion sportsmen, Trade Union leaders, Lord Mayors of London and Members of Parliament.

Frederick Dawson, watermen and lighterman (1863-1911).
View full size imageFrederick Dawson, waterman and lighterman (1863-1911). © NMM
Thames waterman’s gold prize medal.
View full size imageThames waterman’s gold prize medal. © NMM

The Great River Race

The Watermen’s Company still encourages competitive rowing on the Thames. The annual Great River Race, which started in 1987, is open to all crews rowing in small traditional boats of every type.

One of the rules is that at least one passenger must be carried. This is a modern reminder of the waterman’s historic role in London’s river transport.

The race is rowed over a 35-kilometre (22 miles) course from Richmond to Greenwich. Traditional style Thames watermen’s racing cutters always compete in the race, pulled by up to six rowers. These boats can also be adapted as ceremonial barges for river events. Modern replicas of a royal shallop and a waterman’s wherry usually compete in the race as well.

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