The Lost Frost Fairs of London's River Thames

by KathleenDuffy

In 1683 the Thames froze over and a great Thames Frost Fair was held on the ice itself. But despite recent cold winters, especially 2010, the Thames has failed to freeze. Why?

Londoners today may look back with envy to the old River Thames Frost Fairs that were held on a frozen Thames, and wonder why, despite freezing weather conditions, the Thames refuses to provide similar entertainment today.

Imagine what it would be like to skate on the Thames, stopping off to buy hot chestnuts and mulled wine from stalls erected on the ice. There would be music and dancing, games and sledging competitions.

But don't hold your breath - it's not going to happen in the near future!

Frost Fair on the River Thames by Thomas Wyke
Frost Fair on the River Thames by Thomas Wyke

Some  environmental scientists  agree that after 1600, the average winter temperatures in Europe were as much as 2°C lower than today. (1)  Low temperatures may have been a factor in the freezing of the Thames, but there is little doubt that the presence of the old London Bridge, built in 1176, and its nineteen narrow arches significantly contributed to the Thames freezing over in 1683 between London Bridge and Blackfriars.

The bridge’s presence meant that the flow of the river was much slower than it is today, making it easier for the water to freeze and ice floes to congeal during long bouts of severe winter weather.

Frozen Thames with Old London Bridge in background - 1677
Frozen Thames with Old London Bridge in background - 1677

The Thames had frozen over either wholly or in part at various times before 1683, and leisure activities had taken place there. But in December of that year the Thames froze for two whole months, prompting what some social historians believe to be the first official Frost Fair, rather than a spontaneous gathering on the ice.

Detail of Frost Fair by Wyke 

 The website, Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide (2)   gives a contemporary explanation for the emergence of the Frost Fair. It records (from a pamphlet in the British Museum) that the Thames was so blocked with ice that the watermen were unable to ply their trade, carrying goods and passengers up and down the Thames.

 

 

To compensate for loss of earnings watermen took to the ice, setting up stalls to sell liquor and food to an eager public. Eventually roads were built on the ice and carriages began to ply their trade up and down the frozen river.

Detail from Thames Frost Fair by Wyke

Soon the phenomenon was being called a Frost Fair, because the crowds were so great and jovial, just like those at the annual Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield.

The River Thames Frost Fair Entrepreneurs

 

The Frost Fair was naturally a wonderful opportunity for all classes of Londoners to take advantage of the situation. Canny entrepreneurs set up long rows of stalls on the ice selling all manner of goods, including clothing, cookware, meat, drink, and tobacco, to name but a few. There were barbers, gambling dens, fortune tellers and even people charging a toll to cross from the river bank onto the ice.

 A whole ox was roasted on a gigantic spit. Jugglers, puppet shows, acrobats and all varieties of entertainers took to the ice. A decent remuneration was made by all involved.

Even King Charles II, ever the sociable monarch, visited the Frost Fair with his family.

Print of Frost Fair on the Thames by Pauline Baynes
Print of Frost Fair on the Thames by Pauline Baynes

The diarist, John Evelyn, quoted by Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide writing on 24th January, seemed particularly impressed with a printing press that had been set up ‘…where ye people and ladyes tooke a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and yeare set down…’twas estimated the printer gain’d £5 a day for printing a line onely at six-pence a name…”.

The Decline of River Thames Frost Fairs

Frost Fairs were celebrated because the freezing over of the River Thames was a rare occurance. The river only froze twenty-two times between 1408 and 1814.  The last Frost Fair was held in 1813-14.

In 1831 the old London Bridge was replaced. The new London Bridge (sold in 1968 and re-erected in Arizona) had wider arches which meant the river would never freeze again at this point. But as depicted in this painting by James McNeill Whistler, The Thames in Ice,  painted in 1860, there were still periods when ice floes were seen on the Thames, causing partial freezing.

The Thames in Ice, James McNeal Whistler
The Thames in Ice, James McNeal Whistler

The freely flowing Thames made life easier for all who travelled on it.

Yet the old Frost Fairs were intriguing events that brought the citizens of the great city of London together, uniting both banks of the Thames, in a joyful celebration of a rare, natural phenomenon.

 

Sources:

1.  Environmental History Resources website

2. Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide website.

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Updated: 02/04/2014, KathleenDuffy
 
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KathleenDuffy on 05/21/2013

Yes, tenuous thread there....bloody windy, I remember!

JoHarrington on 05/21/2013

But it does sound like an amazing place to have worked. And the GLC was on the banks of the Thames. It must have got a bit nippy in winter. We're in the vicinity of relevant. :D

KathleenDuffy on 05/21/2013

I forgot to add - the most important factor - they had a massive nursery for the staff's children. I used to take my son to work.

Sorry, gone on a bit - this is nowt abojt rivers freezing over...

KathleenDuffy on 05/21/2013

I did work at the GLC - as a secretary in a typing pool - but I didn't 'know' Ken. It was a massive place. It was wonderful working there though - the miners came down when they were on strike and gave talks in the lunch hour, we could go to art classes, language classes etc in our lunch hour. Great subsidised canteen, amazing library - I wonder where all those books are now...

JoHarrington on 05/21/2013

You worked at the GLC? You knew Ken Livingstone? Wow! Now that's an article I'd enjoy reading!

KathleenDuffy on 05/21/2013

Oh, yes, Ken.... I worked at the GLC for a while in the 1970s. It was a great place to be. Ken is a good bloke.

JoHarrington on 05/21/2013

But if I e-mailed Boris, I'd just end up being rude or ranting. If only we'd thought of this while Ken was still in charge. :(

KathleenDuffy on 05/20/2013

Ha Ha - Yes, you read my mind - I was thinking of the TB! I'm sure it would work. (I'd rather you e-mailed Boris....)...

JoHarrington on 05/20/2013

OOoooh! Maybe we could do something with the Thames Barrier... You e-mail Boris. I'll go buy some ice skates. :D

KathleenDuffy on 05/20/2013

Hi Jo - Yes, it does seem to be the answer! Maybe they could invent a temporary shutter system when it gets cold so we could have those fairs back! :)


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