The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather became during winter, in comparison to the weather experienced in London in modern times.
The idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames in London may seem a flight of fantasy today, especially when one appears, or is mentioned several times in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who. In one of the scenes set during the 1814 Thames frost fair, the doctor encounters an elephant walking across the frozen surface of the Thames. In another episode the doctor takes River Song to the same event to celebrate her birthday. The Thames frost fairs are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a beautiful collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD. Today, the idea of such a novel event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of the fair on the frozen River Thames may seem surreal, but it did happen several times in the past. Here we look at some of these times and see how it affected Londoners; what they did and how they coped in those frigid times.
The Little Ice Age
The River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it. The river swarmed with large and small boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river. Many people lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains today.
With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel up, down or across it?
Although it is written in legends and folklore, it is also historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce to be brought to a halt. These extreme cold events happened during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870. (Expert opinion varies on this subject, and is not dealt with here.) During the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice and in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river.
The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750. During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months, but most events were usually much briefer. When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too. However, Londoners, being innovative and enterprising, adapted. In its frozen state, the river effectively became a highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice. Furthermore, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun. Londoners like to have fun.
The First Frost Fair (1607-08)
In 1608, the first recorded London frost fair took place on the icy surface of the River Thames. During December, 1607, the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608 the ice was thick and strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface. A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink. Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking. Among them, skittles and bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including “folk“ football. This was not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and rules are followed. This competition was between two mobs with virtually no rules and they often became free-for-all, no holds barred, riotous events.