River Thames frost fairs
River Thames frost fairs were held on the tideway of the River Thames at London in some winters between the 17th century and early 19th century, during the period known as the Little Ice Age, when the river froze over. During that time the British winter was more severe than now, and the river was wider and slower, and impeded by Old London Bridge.
Even at its peak, in the mid-17th century, the Thames freezing at London was less frequent than modern legend sometimes suggests, never exceeding about one year in ten except for four winters between 1649 and 1666. From 1400 to the removal of the now-replaced medieval London Bridge in 1835, there were 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen over at London; if "more or less frozen over" years (in parentheses) are included, the number is 26: 1408, 1435, 1506, 1514, 1537, 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, 1655, 1663, 1666, 1677, 1684, 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, (1768), 1776, (1785), 1788, 1795, and 1814. So, of the 24, the by-century totals are: 15th 2, 16th 5, 17th 10, 18th 6. Frost fairs were far more common elsewhere in Europe, for example in the Netherlands. The Thames freezes over more often upstream, beyond the reach of the tide, especially above the weirs, of which Teddington Lock is the lowest. The last great freeze of the higher Thames was in 1962-63.
During the Great Frost of 1683–84, the worst frost recorded in England, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches (28 cm) in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries), causing severe problems for shipping and preventing the use of many harbours. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches; in Somerset, to more than four feet.
One of the earliest accounts of the Thames freezing comes from AD 250, when it was frozen solid for nine weeks. As long ago as 923 the river was open to wheeled traffic for trade and the transport of goods for 13 weeks; in 1410, it lasted for 14 weeks.
The period from the mid-14th century to the 19th century in Europe is called the Little Ice Age because of the severity of the climate, especially the winters. In England, when the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough, Londoners would take to the river for travel, trade and entertainment, the latter eventually taking the form of public festivals and fairs.
The Thames was broader and shallower in the Middle Ages – it was yet to be embanked, meaning that it flowed more slowly. Moreover, old London Bridge, which carried a row of shops and houses on each side of its roadway, was supported on many closely spaced piers; these were protected by large timber casings which, over the years, were extended – causing a narrowing of the arches below the bridge, thus concentrating the water into swift-flowing torrents. In winter, large pieces of ice would lodge against these timber casings, gradually blocking the arches and acting like a dam for the river at ebb tide.
The first frost fairs
The Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century — King Henry VIII travelled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536, Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice frequently during 1564, to "shoot at marks", and small boys played football on the ice.
The first recorded frost fair was in 1608. The most celebrated frost fair occurred in the winter of 1683–84 and was described by John Evelyn:
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.
For sixpence, the printer Croom sold souvenir cards written with the customer's name, the date, and the fact that the card was printed on the Thames, and was making five pounds a day (ten times a labourer's weekly wage). King Charles II bought one. The cold weather was not only a cause for merriment, as Evelyn explained:
The fowls, fish and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive...London, by reason for the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal ...that one could hardly breath.
An eye-witness account of the 1683-84 frost:
On the 20th of December, 1688 [misprint for 1683], a very violent frost began, which lasted to the 6th of February, in so great extremity, that the pools were frozen 18 inches thick at least, and the Thames was so frozen that a great street from the Temple to Southwark was built with shops, and all manner of things sold. Hackney coaches plied there as in the streets. There were also bull-baiting, and a great many shows and tricks to be seen. This day the frost broke up. In the morning I saw a coach and six horses driven from Whitehall almost to the bridge (London Bridge) yet by three o'clock that day, February the 6th, next to Southwark the ice was gone, so as boats did row to and fro, and the next day all the frost was gone. On Candlemas Day I went to Croydon market, and led my horse over the ice to the Horseferry from Westminster to Lambeth; as I came back I led him from Lambeth upon the middle of the Thames to Whitefriars' stairs, and so led him up by them. And this day an ox was roasted whole, over against Whitehall. King Charles and the Queen ate part of it.
Thames frost fairs were often brief, scarcely commenced before the weather lifted and the people had to retreat from the melting ice. Rapid thaws sometimes caused loss of life and property. In January 1789, melting ice dragged a ship which was anchored to a riverside public house, pulling the building down and causing five people to be crushed to death.
Walking from Fulham to Putney
Soon after Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London, took residence at Fulham Palace in 1788, he recorded that the year was remarkable "for a very severe frost the latter end of the year, by which the Thames was so completely frozen over, that Mrs. Porteus and myself walked over it from Fulham to Putney". The annual register recorded that, in January 1789, the river was "completely frozen over and people walk to and fro across it with fairground booths erected on it, as well as puppet shows and roundabouts".
The last frost fair
The frost fair of 1814 began on 1 February, and lasted four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. A printer named George Davis published a 124-page book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. The entire book was type-set and printed in Davis's printing stall, which had been set up on the frozen Thames. This was the last frost fair. The climate was growing milder; old London Bridge was demolished in 1831 and replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, allowing the tide to flow more freely; and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, all of which made the river less likely to freeze.
The frieze contains an inscription that reads (two lines per slab):
Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done
The inscription is based on handbills, printed on the Thames during the frost fairs.
- Lamb 1977
- Windsor history
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- Schneer 2005, p. 72
- Hudson 1998, quoting Evelyn
- Hudson 1998, quoting Evelyn
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- Schneer 2005, p. 73
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- Currie, Ian (1996). Frost, Freezes and Fairs: Chronicles of the Frozen Thames and Harsh Winters in Britain from 1000 A.D. Coulsdon, Surrey: Frosted Earth. ISBN 978-0-9516710-8-5.
- Davis, George. Frostiana; Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. (London: printed and published on the Ice on the River Thames, 12mo., February 5, 1814)
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- Porteus, Dr. Beilby (1806). A Brief Description of Three Favourite Country Residences. Cambridge: privately printed in a limited edition.
- Reed, Nicholas (2002). Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames. Folkestone: Lilburne Press. ISBN 978-1-901167-09-2.
- Schneer, Jonathan (2005). The Thames: England's River. London: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-86139-1.
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