The northeast has been in the grip of a cold spell that it has not seen in years, and today is the coldest day our region has experienced in a decade. Time to resurrect a post I featured in 2007: the 1814 Frost Fair. I’ve added a few links and some additional information to the original post:
During a mini ice age two hundred years ago, the winters were so cold that the river Thames would freeze in solid sheets of ice. The last time this event occurred was in 1814. The old London Bridge was bulkier than the new London Bridge built in 1823, and it acted like a dam, blocking the sluggish currents and allowing the water to ice over. After the new bridge was built and the old one was demolished, and after embankments were erected (which narrowed the river channel), the river flowed too swiftly for the waters to freeze.
Since the beginning of the 17th century, a Frost Fair was held whenever the river iced over. This practice lasted for 200 years. People ventured out on the ice, vendors set up stalls, and a variety of entertainments were offered. “…Men and Beasts, Coaches and Carts, went as frequently thereon, as Boats were wont to pass before. There was also a Street of Booths built from the Temple to Southwark, where were Sold all sorts of Goods imaginable, namely, Cloaths, Plate, Earthen Ware, Meat, Drink, Brandy, Tobacco, and a Hundred sorts of other Commodities …” (Print of the Frost Fair) The fairs were widely popular and people arrived from the countryside to join in the festivities. John Evelyn, 17th century chronicler, wrote a colorful description: “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, 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.”
And this is what they did with the Great Frost. By February, as Lord William Pitt Lennox tells us in his Recollections, the Thames between London Bridge and Blackfriars became a thoroughly solid surface of ice. There were notices at the ends of all the local streets announcing that it was safe to cross the ice, and, as in times of Elizabeth 1, full advantage was taken of this new area and the public interest in it. As before, there now sprang up a Frost Fair. The people moved across the river by way of what was called Freezeland Street. On either side, crowded together, were booths for bakers, butchers, barbers and cooks. There were swings, bookstalls, skittle alleys, toyshops, almost everything that might be found in an ordinary fair. There were even gambling establishments and the ‘wheel of fortune, and pricking the garter; pedlars, hawkers of ballads, fruit, oysters, perambulating pie-men; and purveyers of the usual luxuries, gin beer, brandy-balls and gingerbread.’ – The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency, J.B. Priestley, p 113.
The first recorded Frost Fair was in 1608, and it seems to have been a relatively small affair. Visitors to the fair could play games, eat food, purchase beverages, and visit a variety of stalls. The biggest and most famous Frost Fair occurred in 1683/84, lasting for several months in total and featuring a wide range of diversions. However, contemporaries wrote that this Frost Fair carried a hidden cost; pollution increased greatly due to open fires, for example, and neighboring parks were stripped of game.
The festivals on the ice would have been a pleasant way to wile away an afternoon for English people of all classes. King and nobles visited the Frost Fairs alongside less fortunate members of British society, with many people purchasing souvenirs to commemorate their attendance. – What Were the River Thames Frost Fairs? Wise Geek
Jane Austen was still alive when the last Frost Fair was held in 1814. She must also have felt the chill of that cold February in which London experienced the hardest frost it had known in centuries. Though the fair lasted for only four days it was made memorable by an elephant, which was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. The print below shows how raucous some of the festivities became.
Read more on the topic at these links
- Frost Fairs: The Thames, Icons of England
- The Last Frost Fair: Risky Regencies
- 1814 Frost Fair
- The History of British Winters
- Frost Fair on the River Thames
- Frost Fairs, London UK
- Extinct Entertainments
- Print of the Frost Fair, 1684
- 1683-4 Frost Fair, Series of Prints
- A View of the Frost Fair on the Thames
Last Image: Collage, City of London