City on the Ice
As the world warms, it is difficult to believe that winters between the 16th and early 19th centuries were so cold the city of London could move commerce and entertainment onto the Thames without fear of ice breaking, but it is true! Called frost fairs, major fairs took place several times, and minor events often.
Europe was in the grip of what was called “The Little Ice Age.” While certainly not as glacial as the great ages of prehistory, Europe did see a sharp decline in overall temperatures from the early 14th century to approximately 1850. 1684 the winter was so severe, the sea at the southern end of Britain was said to have frozen out two miles. All those novels that describe cold, snowy winters in the Regency era, are fairly accurate.
The Thames at London was prone to freezing for a few reasons. It was wider, less channeled, and slower moving than it became later. The old London Bridge, demolished in 1831, had broad piers placed closely together. Ice flows tended to jam up under the bridge effectively creating a dam and making the river likely to freeze at London.
Life during particularly severe years must have been grim. Famine, fog, and darkness haunted London. Declaring a fair gave people a break from their troubles. Is it any wonder people took to the ice? They marched across and skated. As early as 1563, Queen Elizabeth I set up an archery field on the river. In 1607 they bowled, enjoyed ball matches, and ate. That was just a start.
Like any proper fair, food became a big draw. In 1684 Charles II enjoyed a spit-roasted ox. This broadsheet from the 1684 frost fair, advertises the Stuart equivalent of a fast food stall:
Kind master, drink you beer, or ale or brandy?
Walk in, kind sir, this booth is the chief,
We’ll entertain you with a slice of beef,
And what you please to eat or drink, ‘tis here,
No booth, like mine, affords such dainty cheer;
Another crys, Here master, they but scoff ye,
Here is a dish of famous new made coffee.
Quotation marks right
And some do say a giddy senseless ass
May on the Thames be furnished with a lass.
But wait! There was plenty more to do as evidenced in this passage from The Sussex Advertiser for February 7, 1814 (as quoted in The British Newspaper Blog):
Gambling, in all its branches, threw out different allurements…leaving kind customers without a penny to pay for the passage over the plank to the shore. Skittles were played by several parties, and the drinking tents filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat round large fires, drinking rum, grog, and other spirits. Tea, coffee, and eatables were provided in ample order.
The business about “a penny to pay for the passage,” is serious business. The watermen, as you can imagine, were put out of work by the ice, and they had to earn a living somehow. According to George Davis, a printer who produced an entire book on the ice in 1814, they placed signs at the end of every street on the city side offering safe passage onto and across the ice for a penny, and, “Many were induced to venture on the ice, and the example this afforded, soon led thousands to perambulate the rugged plain…”
Thousands walked on the ice! A tent cities grew up, fires were set, and in 1814 someone walked an elephant across the ice, but the ice held that year as it did most years. Most but not all. During the 1739 fair, a part of the ice gave way and tents, business, and folks enjoying the fair went into the freezing water. Yet the fairs continued in winters that allowed it. One suspects officials must have monitored the state of the ice carefully.
The final frost fair, which occurred in 1814, lasted only five days, but it may have been the largest. In addition to food in abundance, music dancing, gambling, bonfires, games and fun drew thousands. Never slow to see an advantage, the tradesmen of the city took the opportunity to set up what we would call flash sales of every sort of goods imaginable. It was indeed a city on the ice.
Frost fairs have been featured fiction often. Here is a sample:
For more information see:
Davis, George, Frostiana, or The History of the Thames in a Frozen State, London: printed on the ice, February 5, 1814. ftp://ftp.library.noaa.gov/docs.lib/htdocs/rescue/rarebooks_1600-1800/GB13985G7F761814.pdf
“Discovering the Frost Fair of 1814,” The British Newspaper Archive, January 21, 2019, https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2019/01/21/discovering-the-frost-fair-of-1814/
Lubofsky, Evan, London on Ice: The Georgian Frost Fairs Held on the River Thames, on MentalFloss, October 4, 2019, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/587307/when-river-thames-froze-londoners-held-frost-fairs
Rafferty, John P., “What Was the Little Ice Age?” on Encyclopedia Britannica, Demystified History. https://www.britannica.com/story/what-was-the-little-ice-age
“The Thames Frost Fairs,” on Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Thames-Frost-Fairs/
Caroline Warfield, is one of the authors of Fire & Frost, a collection of five all new novellas that deliver readers determined ladies, gallant heroes, and fiery love in the icy winter of 1814 all the way to the Great Frost Fair upon the Thames. She plunged into 2020 writing two novels, one each for two new series.
You can find her here: https://www.carolinewarfield.com/