River Thames frost fairs were fairs held on the River Thames at London when that portion of the river sometimes froze over, during the 15th–19th centuries, when the British winter climate was more severe than it is now.
During the Great Frost of (1683–1684), the worst ever recorded in England, the Thames was completely frozen for about two months and the ice was reported to be 11 inches (about 28 cm) thick at London. Sea ice was reported along the coasts of southeast England, and ice prevented the use of many harbours: according to some sources, the sea froze so that ice formed for a time between Dover and Calais, with the two sides joined. The ice caused problems for shipping access to such ports on each side of the North Sea. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to a depth of 27 inches; in Somerset, more than 4 feet.
One of the earliest accounts of the Thames freezing over comes from AD 250, when it was frozen solid for nine weeks. In 923 the river was open to wheeled traffic for trade and the transport of goods for thirteen weeks; in 1410, for fourteen weeks.
The period from the mid 14th century to the 19th century in Europe has been called the Little Ice Age because of the severity of the climate at the time, especially the severe winters. When the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough, Londoners held a festival on the river. However, the colder climate wasn't the only factor that allowed the river to freeze over in a city where, in the 21st century, small ponds rarely retain a thin covering of ice on a cold winter's day: the Thames was broader and shallower then, because it was yet to be embanked, which meant that it flowed more slowly. Furthermore, old London Bridge, which carried a row of houses on each side of its roadway, was supported on many closely spaced piers, which acted like a dam.
The first frost fairs
Although the Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century, the first recorded frost fair didn't happen until 1608. King Henry VIII is said to have traveled all the way from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river during the winter of 1536. Queen Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter of 1564.
One of most celebrated frost fairs occurred in the winter of 1683–1684 and was thus 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.
A printer named Croom sold souvenir cards written with the customer's name, the date, and the fact that the card was printed on the Thames for six pence, and was said to be making five pounds a day from the enterprise, which was at least ten times a labourer's weekly wage. Even King Charles II bought one. But the cold weather was not only a cause for merriment, as Evelyn went 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 a severe frost of the 1680s :
- On the 20th of December, 1688, 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.
(Charles II died in 1685, years before the dates given in the above account. The context makes probable that the writer described 1683–1684.)
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 at a ship anchored to a riverside public house, pulling the building down and crushing five people to death.
Walking from Fulham to Putney
Soon after Beilby Porteus
, newly appointed Bishop of London
, took up 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, a 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 Davis
published a book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State
. This was to be the last frost fair. The climate was growing milder; also, old London Bridge
was demolished in 1831, and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, both of which made the river less likely to freeze.
Years when the Thames froze
From 1400 into the 19th century, 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.
- Britton, John and Edward with Brayley, Wedlake. Beauties of England and Wales. Vol. X, p83. (London: Vernor and Hood, 8vo.,1801–16)
- Currie, Ian. Frost, Freezes and Fairs: Chronicles of the Frozen Thames and Harsh Winters in Britain from 1000 A.D. (Coulsdon, Surrey: Frosted Earth, 1996) ISBN 9780951671085
- 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)
- Drower, George. 'When the Thames froze', The Times, 30 December 1989
- Facsimile of text on Jstor.
- Hudson, Roger. London: Portrait of a City. (London: The Folio Society, 8vo., 1988)
- Lamb, H.H. Climate: Present, past and future. Vol. II. Tables App. V. 6 and 7, pp.568–70, (London: Methuen, 1977)
- Porteus, Rt. Rev. Dr. Beilby. A Brief Description of Three Favourite Country Residences. (Cambridge: privately printed in a limited edition, 1806)
- Reed, Nicholas. Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames. Folkestone: Lilburne Press, 2002. ISBN 9781901167092