Feb
23
2010

What is the oldest sporting trophy?

Winners of Doggett's Coat and Badge, the oldest rowing race (PD-EXP)

Winners of Doggett's Coat and Badge, the oldest rowing race (PD-EXP)

Each time the America's Cup match races are held, sponsors claim that the America's Cup is the oldest sporting trophy, and the media often say the same. The official website is more circumspect, stating: “… the America's Cup is often called the oldest trophy in sport.” The first race was in 1851, around the Isle of Wight, and was won by the Americans.

The sponsors and the official website could be correct, if they claimed “the old mug”, as Harold Sterling Vanderbilt referred to it, was the oldest international sporting trophy, but they don't. It must also be assumed that the reference is to a trophy that is still being competed for, since many racing trophies were won and kept, or annual competition for a perpetual trophy disbanded.

The oldest US horse racing trophy was won in 1665 in a race on Long Island. The second oldest American trophy is the Annapolis Subscription Plate, first won in 1743 and competed for until the early 1960s. A race for the trophy—now a 1955 replica of the original—was re-established in 2008.

Britain's oldest horse racing trophy is the Lanark Silver Bell, which is assumed to be older that the hallmarks from 1587 and 1599, indeed, tradition says that it was donated by King William, “The Lion” of Scotland in the 12th century. Racing for it has also been recently re-established.

Competition for the Duncaster Cup started in 1766 and continues to this day, but apparently a new

trophy was presented and kept, since the one from 1801 was auctioned in 2004 and the one from 1858 was bought at auction in 2007 by the Australian Jockey Club and offered as a perpetual trophy for a race at Randwick.

The University Boat Race along the River Thames, contested by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, originated in 1829. However, it has only had a trophy since 1999.

Competition by rowing eights for the Grand Challenge Cup began at the Henley Regatta in 1839, and a couple of other perpetual trophies were established before it became Henley Royal Regatta in 1851. Needless to say, competition for these trophies continues to the present.

But perhaps the oldest trophy that has been competed for annually is the Doggett Coat and Badge, if one accepts that there is no perpetual trophy; each winner keeps his coat and the silver badge.

In 1715, Thomas Doggett, as Irish comedian and actor in London and joint manager of the Drury Lane Theater, proposed a prize for the apprentices of the Company of Watermen to row from London Bridge to Chelsea (more than four miles), the winner to be awarded a red coat and a silver badge, that Doggett decreed would bear the horse of the House of Hanover and “Liberty” in honor of George I of England (the Georges were rulers of both England and Hanover).

The Doggett Coat and Badge have been competed for ever since. During WW II, the race was suspended, but after the war, it was opened to apprentices who could have competed during the hiatus.

The watermen in Doggett's time provided taxi service between “plying stairs” along the Thames. Originally the race was in wherries, taking two hours against the tide. Now it is rowed in racing singles—with the incoming tide—and only takes about twenty minutes, but the honor is just as great, even though watermen no longer compete for passengers on the Thames.

So which is “the oldest trophy in sport”? Not the America's Cup.

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