The 1814 Frost Fair
“Skittles was played by several parties, and the drinking tents were 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.”
In exceptionally cold winters, especially during the ‘Little Ice age’ (thought to have lasted from about 1300 to about 1850) ‘Old Father Thames’ used to freeze solidly enough for people to walk across. Since Londoners from the year dot have loved nothing better than a party, preferably an unlicensed free-for-all, the holding of fairs on the river on such occasions became a tradition. There were Frost Fairs in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1683, 1715, 1739, and 1789, and finally, in 1814.
The first properly recorded frost fair was during the winter of 1607/08. During December the Thames had frozen enough to allow people to walk between Southwark to the City, but by January the ice became so thick that people started setting up camp on it, and holding football and bowling matches; the Fair hosted fruit-sellers, shoemakers, barbers… even a pub or two. To keep the shopkeepers warm, there were even fires within their tents.
During the Great Winter of 1683/84, where even the seas of southern Britain were frozen solid for up to two miles from shore, the most famous frost fair was held, known as The Blanket Fair. The London writer and diarist John Evelyn described it in detail, writing:
“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not onely splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers[e] places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.”
However, since holding a festival on a piece of ice, has its risks, there was the occasional tragedy. During the fair of 1739 a chunk of ice gave away and swallowed up tents, businesses and people.
Another tragedy occurred in 1789: melting ice dragged away a ship anchored to a riverside pub in Rotherhithe. As the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ wrote at the time:
“The captain of a vessel lying off Rotherhithe, the better to secure the ship’s cables, made an agreement with a publican for fastening a cable to his premises. In consequence, a small anchor was carried on shore, and deposited in the cellar, while another cable was fastened round a beam in another part of the house. In the night the ship veered about, and the cables holding fast, carried away the beam, and levelled the house with the ground, by which accident five persons asleep in their beds were killed.”
In 1811 the river froze hard, leaving only a narrow channel, so that people could walk on it from Battersea Bridge to Hungerford Stairs. But only three years later it froze hard again at the beginning of January after a week long fog. The streets were piled high with snow, the ice on the river dirty and “lumpy” but firm enough on January 30th for seventy people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. More people soon ventured onto the ice and by Monday Feb 1st the river was so solid from Blackfriars Bridge to some way below Three Crane Stairs that thousands were tempted onto it.
The Times of 2 February 1814 reported that “in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon”. The Frost Fair was focused between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge in the heart of the city.
By Tuesday the whole area was a fair, built around a main ‘road’, nicknamed the ‘City Road’, which went straight down the middle of the Thames rather than across, and was lined on both sides with about thirty stalls, decorated with streamers, flags and “signs”, set up for the sale of porter, spirits, and other drinks as well as for skittles, dancing, and a variety of games.
By the next day, Wednesday (February 3rd), eight or ten printing-presses had been set up, printing cards and broadsides to commemorate the ‘great frost.’
A small sheep roasted on the ice drew quite a crowd – though they were charged sixpence to view it. The meat was afterwards sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’ But the highlight was a roast ox. Mutton was also served – both in slices and in mince pies.
Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were on sale. But alcohol dominated the proceedings. Ginger bread vendors sold cups of gin. There was the strong gin was called Old Tom – “incredibly ardent”; Purl – a mix of gin and wormwood wine, similar to vermouth (drunk hot). There was also a “very spiky” beer called Mum infused with spices, like a wassail or winter ale. The tents – made out of sails and propped up with oars – were called “fuddling tents”, as you were likely to leave fuddled by the strong liquor.
It was still not wise to stray too far. A plumber called Davies tried to cross near Blackfriars Bridge carrying some lead and fell through the ice (plumbers being as daft then as now). Two young women were luckier when they fell in, being rescued just in time by Thames watermen.
On Thursday the ice seemed to be still as solid as rock. The fair continued to grow and attract more visitors. There were swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds, sliding-barges, just like Greenwich and Bartlemy Fairs. Friday the 4th brought even more, and scores of pedlars, selling books, toys, anything labelled with the words “bought on the Thames”.
The Thames watermen, far from being ruined made a huge profit by charging a toll of twopence or threepence to enter ‘Frost Fair;’ – and demanding a tip on leaving. Some were rumoured to have made up to £6 a day.
That afternoon, however, the ice cracked above London Bridge, a large piece carrying away a man and two boys through one of the arches. They were rescued by some Billingsgate fishermen.
For the remainder of the week the fair remained in full swing, the ‘City Road’ between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge crowded till after nightfall.
On Saturday the 5th the wind turned to the south, with a slight fall of snow and sleet. Undeterred, thousands returned to the fair, and were tempted by donkey rides for a shilling. Later that day the crowd thinned as rain began to fall and the ice to crack, threatening stalls, donkeys, printing-presses, and all.
The thaw was rapid. In spite of warning from the watermen two young men went on the ice above Blackfriars Bridge and were carried away. On Sunday morning, February 6th, at an early hour the tide began to flow and to break up the ice. On the Monday huge ice-floes washed to and fro with the tide, carrying off many barges and lighters from their moorings above the bridge so they were quite quickly wrecked and sank. In no time the ice was quite gone and the river flowing as usual though the frost lasted altogether till the 20th March.
So ended the last Frost Fair, possibly one of the most evocative traditions of old London. The demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831, and its rebuilding, allowing a faster flow, put an end to the chance of the river freezing; the Little Ice Age is thought to have come to and end, and the industrial Revolution helped to make the climate toastier too.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online