The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction
Between 1400 AD and 1814, the last time it happened, the River Thames in London froze over 26 times. And when it froze solidly, Londoners made the most of it, and the “Frost Fairs” developed.
The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold.
It was also the time known as the “Little Ice Age”, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800 or so.
The huge, medieval bridge, with houses and shops above the numerous archways, is shown in the background of the woodcut to the right of this text, depicted during the Frost Fair of 1683.
The text accompanying the woodcut says:
An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd
The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower.
The Frozen Thames in the 16th century
The Thames froze over several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall, next to Westminster, to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. Greenwich was one of Henry’s favourite palaces; he married there more than once, and his daughter Elizabeth I was born there later in 1536.
In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, and boys and men played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:
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; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.
On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.
The development of Frost Fairs into full-blown parties
The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608. It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.
The “Long Freeze” or “Great Freeze” of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began 6 weeks before Christmas, and lasted into February.
Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river.
A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and “chair-pushing” events were also set up.
A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:
A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.
John Evelyn, a diarist, said that:
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
The mug shown in the picture to the right of this text is tiny, less than 2.5 inches high. Engraved on the base are the words, “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4″.
It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.
It is astonishing that something so small and delicate lasted to be put in a museum!
The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.
Not only rivers, but huge chunks of the North Sea, froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. There is a fascinating article from the New Scientist about this winter, called 1709: The year Europe froze.
A London paper said:
The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.
On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.
The last River Thames Frost Fair
The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814.
The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid – an elephant was led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice.
Hoardes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.
Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:
Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.
The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.
Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.
There has, of course, been ice on the River Thames since 1814 – what has not happened since then is the absolute freezing of the water, thick enough to allow lots of activity to take place on the ice.
The photograph to the right of this text shows ice in 1895, with the newly-constructed Tower Bridge in the background.
It looks pretty uneven, and not much fun to walk on!