Even when temperatures plummet the Thames does not completely freeze over these days, as it did in the past during the so-called “little ice age”. Demolishing the old London Bridge in 1831 improved the flow of the river and following the construction of its replacement structure, with wider arches, it has never again seized up. For some, this innovation was highly welcomed as inclement weather previously disrupted their travel plans on the Thames. In the 19th century, before the advent of railways, the river carried most goods in and out of the capital, so a frost was damaging for businesses.
But for others, a cold spell could only mean one thing – it was time to have some fun. During the winter of 1814 Londoners enjoyed major celebrations on the frozen Thames, with a grand mall lined with stalls (named ‘City Road’) running from Blackfriars Bridge. Even an elephant was led across the river. It was not only arguably the best frost fair that London had ever seen, but it was also the last in a long history of such events stretching back to the 16th century.
Historians disagree as to exactly when the first actual frost fair took place, but it has been suggested that there was one in 1564 which Queen Elizabeth I visited and saw oxen roasted. Sports such as archery and dancing took place on the frozen river. The following year it is recorded that “some plaied at the football as boldlie there, as if it had been on the drie land; diverse of the Court then being at Westminster, shot dalie at pricks set up upon the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in anie street of the City of London.”
There was another frost fair recorded in 1608 where traders set up stalls “standing upon the ice, as fruitsellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, show makers and a barber’s tent.” And the diarist John Evelyn described a celebrated frost fair in the winter of 1683-84, visited by Charles II where there were so many booths that stalls were arranged in streets:
“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.”
But sometimes during frost fairs the weather conditions changed and the carnival atmosphere turned sour. In January 1789 tragedy struck when a “sudden breaking up of the ice” led to five people being crushed to death. Melting ice dragged a ship which was anchored to a riverside public house pulling the building down and causing the fatalities.
To coincide with the 200th anniversary of the last frost fair in 1814, the Museum of London Docklands currently has a small display featuring some of the souvenirs from this historic occasion. Perhaps the most intriguing is what is claimed to be “the only surviving piece of gingerbread” from the event that year. Retained with its wrapper, it is now apparently “a little hard, but still smells of ginger and spice.” There are also fragments of stone chipped from Blackfriars Bridge that people kept as mementoes. And there are also a wonderful etchings by the satirical artist George Cruickshank that depict the vitality at the 1814 fair.
Judging by contemporary accounts, the frost fair of 1814 must have been fascinating. The Chester Chronicle reported on Friday 11th February that: “The River Thames all last week was a perfect Dutch Fair. Kitchen fires and furnaces were blazing and boiling in every direction, and animals, from a sheep a rabbit, and a goose to a lark, were turning on numberless spits. The inscriptions on the several booths and lighters were variously whimsical, one of which ran humorously thus:—‘This Shop Let.— N. B. it is charged with no land-tax, or even ground rent.’ — in addition to the arrangements which were prepared the watermen, a complete dancing room has been established in a barge, which is firmly frozen at a considerable distance from the shore.”
The Chronicle also noted that “a printing press has also been set at work, the proprietor which have a very ready sale for watch papers, bearing inscriptions commemorative of The Great Frost of 1814.” One of the souvenirs in question was a 124-page volume, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State (a copy is on display at the Museum of London Docklands and it is available online), which was entirely type-set and printed at George Davis’s printing stall, which had been set up on the frozen Thames. And the newspaper also found a meaningful sign: “Friends, now is your time to support the freedom of the press. Can the press have greater liberty? Here find it working in the middle the Thames, and if you encourage by buying our impressions, we will keep it going the true spirit of liberty during the frost.”
Another of the articles printed sold contained the following lines:
Behold the River Thames is frozen o’er;
Which lately ships of mighty burden bore
Now different arts and pastimes you see
But printing claims the superiority.
Sadly the river Thames is unlikely to frost over again. And we can therefore only imagine these wonderful, joyous occasions from the past.