Posts tagged: River Thames

The Frost Fairs: the frozen River Thames in London

By , January 10, 2010 3:43 am

The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

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.

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair  in 1683/1684

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair in 1683/1684

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:

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

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 Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

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.

Since 1814

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

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!

The River Fleet – London’s second tidal waterway

By , June 20, 2009 2:58 pm

London’s tidal river? Easy one, it’s the River Thames.

But the Thames isn’t the only one. The River Fleet, now mostly running underground, was a navigable, tidal river, which joins the Thames next to Blackfriars Bridge, and marks the historic boundary between the cities of London and Westminster.

The Fleet’s course isn’t a long one; it rises as  springs in Hampstead, a posh, hilly and leafy area of north London. After about half a mile, it goes underground, and is buried the rest of the way.

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury


Historically, pirates operated on the River Fleet, barges went up and down, watermills were powered by it, and sewage gases exploded.

Visitors to the Royal Courts of Justice or the Temple are likely to walk along Fleet Street, and the newspaper industry as a whole is still known as “Fleet Street”, although the papers mostly moved east out of central London towards Wapping and Canary Wharf in the 1980s.

This article is about the course, history and current state of the River Fleet.

The Course and Geography of the River Fleet

The River Fleet starts life as a  number of springs on Hampstead Heath, an impressive 800-acre area of common land north of central London.  There are two main sources, one on either side of Parliament Hill, both about 350 feet above sea level.

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet


The streams are dammed into a series of ponds, the Highgate Ponds and the Hampstead Ponds. Three are run as year-round swimming pools, one for men, one for women, and one mixed-sex (warning, it’s not that warm on Hampstead Heath in the winter….) The City of London Corporation runs the bathing ponds, and the relevant page on its website can be found here.

From Hampstead, the two streams run downhill, mostly underground in culverts and pipes, through Kentish Town and Camden, joining together south of Camden Town. There are memories of the Fleet River before it went underground, including Fleet Road and Fleet Primary School.

The River Fleet continues south, going under King’s Cross Station in a sewer / pipe, and southwards towards St. Pancras and Bloomsbury. A tributary of the Fleet enters from the west, having started life near Tottenham Court Road, and come past University College, London, and University College Hospital.

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

South of Camden, the first St. Pancras Church was built on the banks of the River Fleet in about 380 AD, and Old St. Pancras Church is still above the current course of the Fleet today.

The Fleet then wriggles its way south, west of Clerkenwell, and along the Farringdon Road.  Another tributary runs underground from near the Barbican, through Smithfield Market (meat and butchery) to join the Fleet at the south of Farringdon Road.

The Fleet’s river valley is quite deep here, a real descent from Snow Hill in the east and Holborn in the west. The Victorian Holborn Viaduct crosses the river valley.  At  the bottom of the valley, over the now-buried river, is the main road going south to Blackfriars.

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Fleet Street, originally a road from Westminster to the City of London via Aldwych, is just to the west of the Fleet, near the River Thames. Until the first bridge was built over the River Fleet here in about 1180 AD, the Fleet could be forded at the easterly end of Fleet Street.

The River Fleet emerges today, as it has done for centuries, near Blackfriars.

There is a great website featuring photographs from all along the River Fleet’s course (overground) which can be found here.



History of the River Fleet

The Roman River Fleet

In Roman times, the River Fleet marked the westerly edge of City of London, and was outside the city walls. It was a navigable, strongly-running river, and powerful enough to run a tidal mill on one of the two small islands on the east side of the Fleet estuary. For a detailed academic article on the archaeological remains of the Roman Fleet, see here.

The Anglo-Saxon River Fleet

In 900 AD, the estuary of the River Fleet, where it joined the River Thames, was approximately 100 yards wide, and shallow and marshy at the edges. It was possible to ford the Fleet here, with care, and at low tide only. The name “Fleet” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fl?ot, meaning  “tidal inlet”.

The Medieval Fleet

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

As London grew after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD, the River Fleet became very useful for boats and barges.  During the reign of King John, the Knights Hospitaller and St. Batholomew’s Hospital shared a wharf on Fleet Lane, allowing goods and people to be ferried up the Fleet from the Thames.

Further up the Fleet, near Farringdon Road today, there are road names which recall the Fleet’s barges unloading coal from Newcastle, such as Newcastle Lane, Newcastle Close, and Old Seacoal Lane.

Stone for building Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was also ferried up the Fleet.

By the 12th century, people were already complaining that the River Fleet was smelly and polluted. Several tanneries were next to the Fleet, and discharging a nasty cocktail of offal, skin scraps and dog faeces into the river.  Butchers threw unwanted and rotten animal parts in the Fleet, and human sewage and other industry by-products joined them.

In the early 13th century, the Whitefriars (Camelites) who had their base next to the mouth of the Fleet, were complaining that the stench overpowered their incense, even during Mass when there was a lot of incense being burned.

Edward I was attacked by pirates who sailed up the River Fleet – the pirates came second in the fight which followed.

The River Fleet got ever nastier, and became a slum area over time.

The River Fleet in Tudor and Stuart times

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

In 1598, John Stow wrote in his Survey of London that there were five bridges over the Fleet, and said it was, “impassable for boats, by reason of the many encroachments thereon made, by the throwing of offal and other garbage by butchers, saucemen and others, and by reason of the many houses of office standing upon it” (A “house of office” was a toilet or lavatory, here emptying directly into the river).

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren turned the River Fleet into the wider, straighter New Canal, with docks on both side of the river; it was about 30 feet wide. But it stayed horribly smelly, contaminated still with rubbish and sewage, and was pretty unpopular.

Higher up the Fleet, a number of fashionable wells and spas were established, as the water here was clean and uncontaminated. The most popular were Clerk’s Well, Bagnigge Well, and St. Bride’s Well. Although the wells have long-gone, Clerkenwell and Brideswell are places in London to this day.

The Covering of the River Fleet

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

Unloved, smelly, and in the way, the Fleet started to be covered over.  In 1733, the part from Fleet Bridge to Holborn Bridge was covered over, and in 1739, the stretch from Holborn to Ludgate Circus was covered over, and the Fleet Market and the Mansion House built over it.

When the Regent’s Canal was constructed in 1810 – 1815, the Fleet was buried northwards, to Camden Town, and by 1880 the whole river, apart from the few hundred yards from the source springs, was underground in pipes, conduits and the New Canal bed.

In 1846, a build up of sewage and associated gasses caused a massive explosion, and the pipes near King’s Cross blew up, sending a tidal wave of sewage through the streets, demolishing buildings, flooding houses, and ramming a boat on the Thames, near the mouth of the Fleet, into Blackfriars Bridge.

The River Fleet today

Most of the Fleet remains underground. The mouth can be seen near Blackfriars Bridge, at low tide, and the streams and ponds are popular spots on Hampstead Heath.

The truly intrepid (I am not among their number) can, if the proper arrangements are made, explore the pipes and conduits underground through which the River Fleet now flows. An article about people doing just that, underground, can be found here.



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