Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When the Thames Frozeth Over...(the Frost Fairs of London)

When the Thames Frozeth Over… (the Frost Fairs of London)

This week temperatures have reached -11° F here in my part of the Midwest, and more snow has been dumped on our city than we’ve seen in twenty years. Snow drifts of several feet sent my poor husband out in his waders just to gather the mail (thanks dear) and the frigid temperatures kept my toddler and I in the house for the most part…much to his temper-tantrum throwing chagrin. Hey, I understand. That white fluffy stuff that tempts him through the windows is fun to play in, but his less-than-two-year-old mind can’t comprehend the concept of frostbite yet.

All of this chilliness reminded me that the period I write in (Georgian/Regency/Victorian) was considered part of the “Little Ice Age” that spanned from the 14th Century through the 19th. Winters were harsh, extreme even (making me reevaluate for a moment my dream of living in those drafty old manor houses with little more than fireplaces to keep me warm. Brrrrr…..)

Winters were so cold that at various times during those years, the Thames froze over --sometimes for days, sometimes for months.

All of this thought of frigid temperatures, ice and England also brought to mind the Frost Fairs. So I decided it would be fun to do a blog about them. Most of you might already know of what I write, but for those that don’t, it should be a fun discovery!

Frost Fairs were Carnivals on the Ice, springing up whenever conditions allowed. When the Thames froze solid, revelers would stage quite the affair: sledding, skating across the ice on skeets, all manner of races (sleds, horse and carriage, horse racing and even donkeys! Can you imagine those poor beasts slipping and sliding about? ), bull-baiting as well as your more typical carnival fare such as stilt walkers, musicians, singers, puppet plays, traveling theatres, booths galore selling anything you could imagine and of course, drinking and eating.

Frost Fairs would also see nobility and even royalty mixing with commoners (Charles II and Elizabeth I were known to practice their target shooting on the frozen Thames), much like I imagine Vauxhall must have done.

Some years, the frost would last two to three months! The Thames became a great street on which shops were built, similar to the old London Bridge. I suppose people had to make the money lost when shipping on the Thames came to a frozen halt. Entrepreneurs abounded…one industrious printer made up souvenir cards for the 1683-84 Frost Fair, printing them right there at the fair and selling them for sixpense (King Charles II reputedly even purchased one himself) and made 10 times a laborers weekly wage PER DAY.

The last Frost Fair was held during the Regency period, starting on February 1st of 1814 and lasting a mere 4 days. On February 5, a sudden shifting of the mass of ice left booths floating away and several people in need of rescue.

A sad end, I think, to the great tradition for the Thames never froze again. Warming climate, the replacement of the London Bridge with a bridge with wider arches and the embankment of the Thames (decreasing its width and therefore allowing for more rapid flow) all contributed to the end of the Frost Fairs.

How I would love to have seen it, though. What events of old do you wish you could have seen with your own eyes?


  1. Great post. I would lhave liked to see one of those frost fairs, and especially the original British Museum, when it was still Montagu House.

  2. What an interesting piece of history. Thanks for this lovely post, Heather.

  3. I have to agree about the Frost Fairs, they would have been a sight.

    I would have like to be in York on 25 August 1804 when Alicia Meynell became the very first female jockey to participate in a horse race. She lost that first race, but returned the next year and won both of the races she ran.

  4. Thank you so much for this information. I've read a few regency romances where this was happening, I think. But now I can actually visualize the scene a little better, and already makes that story better. Cool.

  5. I just read a few books about the fair on the Thames. I even planned a post for later this month.
    Warm regards,

  6. Man that would have been fun to go to!!! I so want to visit one of the hotels made of ice they carve every year. Suposably everything is made of ice...so I'm wondering how the plumbing works.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. Learned something new and interesting today!

  7. Hi Heather ~

    A smashing post!!! I love history and just learned about the Little Ice Age in Astronomy class (of all things!)

    I'd have loved to be there for Lincoln's Second Inaugeration - or the Gettysburg Address. Both speeches give me shivers. I should have liked to know that man.

    Just wanted to drop a quick note to let you know I left you an award at my blog:

    from the desk of a writer

    All the very best,
    Corra :)

  8. Two awards actually - same link. ;)

  9. If you want to get a better idea of these fairs, come to Ottawa, Canada in February and attend Winterlude on the frozen Rideau Canal. Not quite the same scale, but still 8km of fun on the ice.