River Thames Frost Fairs

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River Thames Frost Fairs

In periods when the British climate was more severe than it is now the River Thames sometimes froze over in the winter. A number of fairs, known as the River Thames Frost Fairs were held on the river.

The period from the mid-14th century to the 19th century in Europe is actually called the "Little Ice Age" on account of the severity of the climate at the time, especially the extremely severe winters. When the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough, Londoners held a festival on the river.

Why did the River Thames freeze?

The Thames was broader and shallower then, as the "Embankment' was still to be built, this meant that it flowed more slowly. Also old London Bridge, which carried a row of houses on either side of its roadway was supported on many closely spaced piers, which acted rather like a dam.

The First Frost Fair

The first recorded frost fair didn't happen until 1608, but the Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century. 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 and Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter of 1564.

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The Big One

The most celebrated frost fair occurred in the winter of 1683-84. (pictured above)

John Evelyn, a man at the centre of the intellectual, social, political and ecclesiastical world of his day recorded the event in his diary:

"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."

Postcards

A printer by the name of Croom sold souvenir cards for six pence. These included the customer's name, the date, and the fact that the card was printed on the Thames.

Croom was thought to be making five pounds a day from the enterprise, which was at least ten times a labourer's weekly wage.

Even the King was said to have bought one!

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Booths and Entertainment

A double row of booths was erected upon the ice, running from Temple Stairs across to the south bank. Temple Street, as it was known, incorporated coffee houses, inns and souvenir shops.

Meanwhile on the surrounding ice a wide variety of entertainment was available, including fox-hunting, bear-baiting, football, and even ox-roasting.

With the melting of the ice on 8 February 1684, all vanished beneath the waters.

The Frost Fair Mug

The tiny glass mug (pictured below) is a rare souvenir of the Frost Fair, bought from a stall erected upon the Thames ice when the river froze during the winter of 1683-4.

The glass mug is inscribed on its metal mount with the words 'Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4' and is now in the V&A museum in London.

The mug may well have been engraved on the spot at one of the toy booths shown (see left) on woodcut illustrations of the Fair.

Too small for use, yet too precious for a child to play with as a toy, this delightful object has survived against all odds, providing a memento of one of the most famous events of late 17th-century England.

Death and Destruction

The cold weather was not only a cause for merriment as John Evelyn went on to explain:

"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".

However the River Thames Frost Fairs were often brief, some had 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.

Historic Note:

One of the earliest accounts of the Thames freezing over comes from A.D. 250 when it was said to have frozen hard for nine weeks.

In A.D. 923 the river iced over and wheeled traffic transported goods along its length for thirteen weeks.

In 1410, once again the river froze solid for fourteen weeks and was turned into a roadway to ease congestion in the city – has anyone suggested this to Ken Livingstone yet?

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