diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 01, 2014

200 years ago today, a Frost Fair took place on the Thames. The entire river between Blackfriars and London Bridge froze solid, thick enough to support the weight of merry-go-rounds, fairgoers and even at one point an elephant. This was a once in a generation opportunity, with Frost Fairs having been recorded only intermittently over the preceding centuries.
1434: "A great frost began on the 24th of November, and held till the 10th of February; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes and provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, and brought by land to the city."
1564: "On the 21st of December began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year's eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land."
1608: "From Sunday, the tenth of January, until the fifteenth of the same, the frost grew so extreme, as the ice became firme, and removed not, and then all sorts of men, women, and children, went boldly upon the ice in most parts; some shot at prickes; others bowled and danced, with other variable pastimes, by reason of which concourse of people, there wore many that set up boothes and standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoomakers, and a barber's tent, &c."
1684: "Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water."
1715: "Booths sudden hide the Thames, long streets appear, And numerous games proclaim the crowded fair... Thick rising tents a canvass city build, And the loud dice resound through all the field."
1739: "Various shops were opened for the sale of toys, cutlery, and other light articles. Printing presses were set up and the usual drinking booths and puppet shows abounded. All sorts of sports and diversions were carried on, and the place became a perfect carnival, as if the populace were utterly oblivious of the distress and misery which existed on shore."
1789: "The river Thames, which at this season usually exhibits a dreary scene of languor and indolence, was this year the stage on which there were all kinds of diversions, bear-baiting, festivals, pigs and sheep roasted, booths, turnabouts, and all the various amusements of Bartholomew Fair multiplied and improved. From Putney Bridge in Middlesex, down to Rotherhithe, was one continued scene of merriment and jollity."
A great fog descended on London a few days after Christmas 1813, described at the time as "a darkness that might be felt." In January a deep frost set in, the harshest in living memory, including a snowstorm a full 48 hours long. Ice formed in the Thames, creating floes which gradually merged and froze, until the river was solid enough to support a place of entertainment. This was the five-day Frost Fair of February 1814, the last ever recorded on the Thames. Here's how events played out.
Sunday 30th January 1814: Lumpy ice on the river became firm enough for 70 people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank.
Monday 31st January 1814: The river downstream of Blackfriars Bridge froze solid enough that thousands were tempted onto it.
Tuesday 1st February 1814: As Londoners gathered to make merry on the ice, the Frost Fair emerged. Thirty stalls selling spirits and ale formed a thoroughfare down the middle of the Thames nicknamed the 'City Road'.
Wednesday 2nd February 1814: A handful of printing presses set up on the river to print commemorative souvenirs. One stallholder successfully roasted a sheep on the ice, sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’
Thursday 3rd February 1814: The fair expanded to include swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds and sliding-barges. Crowds thronged the 'City Road' until long after nightfall.
Friday 4th February 1814: Anything labelled "bought on the Thames" sold like hot cakes. A large piece of ice cracked above London Bridge carrying away a man and two boys - later rescued.
Saturday 5th February 1814: The fair continued to draw thousands, including donkey rides at a shilling a time. The wind later turned and rain fell, causing the ice to begin to crack. A rapid thaw set in, and many of those who lingered late had to be rescued.
Sunday 6th February 1814: Early in the morning the tide began to flow again and broke up the ice.
Monday 7th February 1814: "Immense fragments of ice yet floated, and numerous lighters, broken from their moorings, drifted in different parts of the river; many of them were complete wrecks. The frozen element soon attained its wonted fluidity and old Father Thames looked as cheerful and as busy as ever."
The Thames froze over again in 1855, 1893 and 1895, but never thick enough to support a Frost Fair. The rebuilding of London Bridge had speeded up the current, preventing thick ice from forming, and we shall probably never see the like again.

If you head down to the Museum in Docklands they've erected a special Frost Fair display in their main entrance hall. It's not huge, indeed the lady on the front desk apologised for its diminutive size. But it is the only place in London to see mementoes and souvenirs sold on the ice 200 years ago, including a hunk of gingerbread which (apparently) still retains a vaguely spicy smell. There are also some chippings from the lower portions of Blackfriars Bridge, usually inaccessible, and a leaflet printed on the Fair's last day giving J Frost notice to quit, and signed by A Thaw.

The exhibition's only at the museum until the end of March, but there is a more permanent memorial to the 1814 Frost Fair immediately adjacent to where it took place. Five slabs of grey slate in the subway under Southwark Bridge have been engraved by local artist Richard Kindersley to show scenes from the frozen Thames. There's also a poem, two lines per slab, based on handbills printed on the river at the time.
"Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done"
For further background information, try the following...
A millennium of Frost Fairs (a fantastic historical source)
A summary of the 1814 Frost Fair (thanks Barbara)
Splendid BBC Magazine article (includes zoomable 1684 woodcut)
Two woodcuts from 1814 (the first is enlargeable)
Could the fair ever be recreated? (alas, probably not)
Frost Fair 1814 weather, day by day (thanks Scott)

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan20  Feb20  Mar20  Apr20  May20
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream