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This month marks the 200th anniversary of the last Thames Ice Fair. Held on the frozen waters of the River Thames between late January and late February, they occurred every year when the ice was thick enough. The first fair was held in 1608 and was so successful they were held year the river froze until 1814.
These hugely popular events would see the river effectively transformed into a high street with carriages, skaters and walkers all moving freely on its icy surface. Otherwise respectable London traders saw this as an opportunity and dozens of shops and booths sprang up overnight selling food, drink and souvenirs.
Between the mid 14th and the late 19th centuries, the European climate was significantly harsher than it is today. Temperatures actually dropped so low that this period is commonly referred to as the ‘little ice age’. It was characterised by very severe winters, colder and longer than the ones we experience now. The River Thames was also broader and shallower than it is today. The Thames Embankment had not yet been built and the river ran much slower.
The 245th anniversary of the 1684 Frost Fair was celebrated by the Evening Telegraph. This fair was attended by notable writer, gardener and diarist John Evelyn who recorded his visit in a diary. He noted how booths were erected on the ice to form streets, shops opened for the sale of commodities and even a printing press was set up, where, as Evelyn says “people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed” at sixpence a name”.
King Charles II, and the Royal family visited the fair, and patronised the astute gentleman with the printing press. In fact, Charles appears to have been very partial to the ice joining in the sport, and partaking of the ox that was roasted whole against Whitehall.
1814 saw the last of the great frosts cold enough to freeze the Thames. The frost began on the 27th of December and was accompanied by eight days of thick fog a tremendous fall of snow. The ice field spanned from London Bridge to Blackfriars and lasted from 31st January to February 5th.
Just like at the Fair of 1684 street traders and shop keepers set up shop on the ice. Most preparations were made by the watermen who had even established a complete dancing room in a barge that was frozen firmly in the ice at a considerable distance from the shore .
Again, the printing press was a popular feature at the the 1814 fair. The proprietors had made ‘a very ready sale for watch papers, bearing inscriptions commemorative of the “The Great Frost of 1814” and sold mementos containing the following lines: -
“Behold the River Thames is frozen o’er,
which lately ships of mighty burden bore;
Now different arts and pastimes here you see,
but printing claims superiority.”
Despite the thickness of the ice, attending the frost fairs could prove to be risky, even fatal. According to the Oxford Journal, in 1814 two “genteel looking men fell victim to their temerity” when they ventured out onto the river above Westminster Bridge. The mass they stood on broke away and carried them on a hair-raising ride down stream. They “cried out most piteously for help” before sitting down on their icy raft only to overbalance it and sink, “to rise no more” , in the freezing river. Earlier that morning, a booth containing nine men had also been carried by the river at “the quickness of lightening towards Blackfriars Bridge”. In their panic, the stranded men on board attempted to signal for help using the booth’s covering which promptly caught fire on the candles inside. Miraculously, everyone on-board the fiery ice raft escaped by jumping into barges while passing Puddle Dock.
As the last of the ice was “swept with a tremendous range through the noble arches of Blackfriars Bridge”, few of those watching could have realised that the Londoners would never again see the Thames freeze over. The frost fairs are now a part of the city’s rich history and are commemorated by a slate engraving by Richard Kindersley that can be seen in the pedestrian tunnel under Southwark Bridge. The fairs were an incredibly popular and exciting part of London life and if you had ancestors living in there during a frost year, there is a very good chance they would have attended so check our census records to find out!