When winter was really winter: the legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames13 min read
The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather was during winter, in comparison to the weather we know in London in modern times.
Of course, the idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames may seem impossible today, especially when one is mentioned in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who.
In episode “A Good Man Goes to War”, River Song encounters Rory Williams as she is returning to her cell in the Stormcage Containment Facility. She tells him that she has just been to 1814 for the last of the Great Frost Fairs. The Doctor had taken her there for ice-skating on the river Thames.
Also the episode “Thin Ice” is set during the final frost fair in 1814, and includes a reference to the elephant crossing stunt.
Also an early chapter of the novel Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf takes place on the frozen River Thames during the Frost Fair of 1608, and the events are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a popular collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD.
If the idea of such an event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of a fair on the frozen River Thames may seem a quite surreal, actually, it did happen several times in the past.
Historically, the River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it.
The river swarmed with every sort of boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river. A number of people, at the time, lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains still today.
With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel across its waters?
Well, despite it is written in countless local legends and folklore, it is also a real historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce and major activity to be brought to a halt.
These extreme cold events happened during a period literally known as the “Little Ice Age”, that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870, although historians opinion is different on this subject.
In any case, during the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice while, in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river!
The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750.
During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months!
When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too.
Luckily Londoners, innovative and enterprising, adapted themselves and, in its frozen state, the river became a real highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice.
Moreover, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun also in some innovative and alternative ways.
And Londoners like to have fun.
The first recorded London frost fair took place in 1608.
It was December, 1607, when the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608, strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface.
Thus a small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different varieties of food and drink.
Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking. Among them, skittles, bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including the so-called folk football, not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and basics rules are followed, but a competition between two mobs with virtually no rules that often became free-for-all, and no holds barred.
The events and fairs continued over the years, up to winter 1683-84, when the diarist, writer and fellow of the Royal Society, John Evelyn (1620/1706), provided an interesting account of the Frost Fair of that year.
On 6th January, 1684, he wrote in his diary:
“The frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames: this humor took so universally, that it was estimated that the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, etc.
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water, while it was a severe judgment on the land, the trees not only splitting as if the lightning struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers places, and the very seas so locked up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”
He also tells how printers got in on the act. One named Croom, for example, came up with the idea of cashing in on the novelty of the event by selling souvenir cards for sixpence each.
They carried the customer’s name, the date, and proclaimed that it was printed on the frozen Thames. These were extremely popular and the man was said to be making five pounds a day.
Apparently, even King Charles II have brought one.
It was this beloved frost fair that began the rise of Chipperfield’s Circus. Through the 19th century, the circus toured all of England, with a menagerie of animals, teams of acrobats and clowns. After World War II, under the management of Jimmy Chipperfield, the circus became one of the largest in Europe, with a tent that could hold 6,000 people.
In any case, It seems for many Londoners the novelty of the frozen Thames inspired them to make the best of the bad weather while making money and having some fun at the same time. Despite the cold, folk, young and old flocked on to the frozen river in their thousands to enjoy the wide variety of activities and events that suddenly sprang up.
Hackney carriages and horse and carts used the frozen river as if it was a road, while a real street of booths and stalls sprang up selling beers, brandy, and every kind of alcoholic beverage, but there was also music and dancing and many other entertainments, including booths that sold hot coffee and food like hot codlins, pancakes, duck, goose and more.
As more and more people flocked on to the frozen Thames there was more money to be made and, as well as being a place of novelty and entertainment it became a true market where all sorts of goods and merchandise were sold and prices became higher on the ice than they were off it.
However, not everyone approved of what was happening, nor of the behaviour that was being displayed by many people on the ice.
Not just the drunkenness and debauchery, but the philosophy of how the money was being made and how it was bringing out the worst in people caused concern in some people.
Londoners were hit by another icy winter in 1715-16 when a number of heavy snow falls clogged up the city, and it was so cold the Thames froze over for almost three months.
Once again entrepreneurs took to the ice erecting their booths, tents and pavilions selling all kinds of goods and services, with people that flocked on to the frozen river.
On 19th January two oxen were roasted over fires set upon the ice.
The activities on the ice drew people away from the theatres and their usual activities, and even the Prince of Wales visited the frost fair.
Once again entrepreneurial printers set up on the ice publishing all sorts of printed paraphernalia.
One of the Dawks, a London family of printers and booksellers, Ichabod Dawks, published a regular newsletter called Dawk’s Newsletter and on the 14th of January the news was:
“The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for the sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon ; but now it is in a manner like a town: thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water, that now lie congealed into ice. On Thursday, a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there, as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, Printing-presses are kept upon the ice, where many persons have their names printed, to transmit the wonders of the season to posterity.”
Horse-drawn wagons, coaches, barrows, carts and vehicles of all sorts were taken onto the ice, transporting goods and people upon the frozen surface, and a preacher aroused and warmed his congregation with a passionate sermon.
But the Thames, being a tidal river, was also subject to the tides as well as the frost and cold.
An abnormal high tide raised the ice by over four meters, flooding cellars in buildings alongside the river but not putting the revellers out of their stride.
It was only on 15th February that the ice began to thaw and split, breaking up every celebration.
The winter of 1739-40 was another icy event that was remembered for the intense frost and cold and produced another frost fair.
It began on Christmas Day and lasted into the New Year, before finally beginning to slowly thaw on 17th February, in an event became known as “The Great Frost”. The weather was even said to be more severe than the weather around Hudson’s Bay, in Canada.
The poor and working class struggled to find food, fuel and water.
With the weather so severe there was little or no work for many trades such as the watermen who worked on the Thames, as well as fishermen, carpenters, bricklayers and many others.
A few days after the arrival of “The Great Frost” a powerful storm struck the Thames and its estuary causing great damage to boats and vessels, with icebergs and floes that caused havoc and eventually froze together, covering the surface of the river and turning it into an apocaliptic scene of a snowy field with small uneven hills of snow and ice, with icebergs protruding through the icy white surface.
But, when the weather settled, another frost fair sprung up on the ice of the Thames selling all sorts of goods and services.
Again the printers were there and there was the usual drinking and eating booths, puppet shows and a great variety of entertainment and sports.
A carnival atmosphere prevailed as the people sought to forget the problems and difficulties brought on by the severe weather.
The ice lasted for about nine weeks before it thawed and broke up.
At the end of December, 1767, a severe frost began and continued to strengthen until 16th January, causing the River Thames to freeze over again.
Ships, boats and river vessels became trapped in the ice and many were severely damaged or sunk by the ice flows moving with the tides.
During this hard period many lives were lost and the price of meat and food went up so much the poor could not afford it.
The Lord Mayor of London at the time, Thomas Harley, provided subsidies on bringing fish to Billingsgate market, helping to alleviate the suffering, but the poor continued to suffer great hardship both in London and out in the countryside where roads were impassable.
Coal, fuel and food became scarce and expensive because it could not be moved and the severe weather caused many accidents and even deaths.
Moreover, a violent storm caused chaos and damage in the city amounting to £50,000.
A severe frost also began on 25th November, 1788, and lasted for seven weeks.
On 5th January, the Thames froze over and once again a fair and market with puppets shows, drinking and eating booths and even exhibits of wild animals appeared on the ice.
The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that, on 10th January, 1889, thirteen men drove a wagon carrying a ton of coal from Loughborough, Leicestershire and delivered it to the Prince of Wales at Carlton House.
They were paid four guineas by the clerk of the cellars, but when his Highness heard of their feat he ordered they be rewarded with 20 guineas and a pot of beer each.
On 13th January, the Prince of Wales donated £1,000 for the relief of the poor during the severe weather. On Saturday 17th January, the captain of a ship negotiated an agreement with a publican to secure his ship to his premises which lay close to the Thames bank. An anchor was taken into the publican’s cellar and made fast, and a cable attached to a beam of the building. In the night the weather and currents took hold of the ship causing the publican’s building to be destroyed and the death five people.
The magazine also reports that in February, 1789, all manner of entertainments and booths appeared on the ice of the Thames, with all kind of food and drinks, fires roasting oxen, sheep and pigs.
Once again the Thames became a place of carnival and festival, but despite the merriment the poor suffered terribly with little food, water, or fuel for warmth.
The last recorded frost fair began on 1st February, 1814, and lasted four days.
As with previous frost fairs an enterprising printer named George Davis set up a stall and typeset, printed and published a 124 page book titled, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, which he sold as a souvenir.
Again there were stalls and booths selling all kinds of goods, services.
Also the watermen, being unable to work, used the sails from their boats to make booths and tents to accommodate the selling of food like roast meat and gingerbread.
While tea, coffee and hot chocolate were available, it was gin, beer and wine the most popular, sold in “fuddling tents”, temporary makeshift inns.
The watermen charged for entry on to the ice and to watch events such as an ox being roasted.
These services were often provided by the same families whose ancestors had provided for previous Frost Fairs.
There was no police force in those days, and the watermen kept order, broke up fights and controlled the ice, but one of the most peculiar events was when someone led an elephant across the frozen river.
Despite It sounds good, and absolutely something amazing, frost fairs on the Thames were not all fun, as they also brought massive problems and hardship.
The severe weather that produced the conditions to enable these events also brought several issues for many Londoners.
For example, fowls, fish, birds, as well as plants and greens, perished, and all sorts of fuel became so dear that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive. Moreover London, due the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street.
There were also terribile times ahead when the ice started to melt and break up, often bringing death to people and animals alike, damaging every sort of property with flooding too.
The Old London Bridge (1176-1825), was definitively one of the most iconic images of London, as well as partly responsible for the Thames freezing over.
Its design slowed the water down and trapped ice floes, causing them to clog up the river and freeze together.
Moreover, the river was shallower and wider and flowed slower than today, making it easier to freeze.
In 1831, the Old London Bridge was demolished and replaced by one designed to have wider arches that allowed the river to flow through much more easily.
In addition, the construction of the Thames embankments made it deeper and now flow faster, reducing the chances of it freezing over on its way through London with the same intensity of the past.
Another factor that might contribute to preventing a big freeze on the scale of the past is the heat given off by the mass of tarmac, concrete and heated buildings, that help keep London considerably warmer in winter than areas outside the capital.
That being said, no one really knows what the future will bring with global warming, which may cause something different again.
In the pedestrian tunnel under the southern end of Southwark Bridge, there is an engraving by Southwark sculptor Richard Kindersley, made of five slabs of grey slate, depicting the frost fair.
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.”