200 years ago today, a Frost Fair took place on the Thames. The entire river between Blackfriars and London Bridge froze solid, thick enough to support the weight of merry-go-rounds, fairgoers and even at one point an elephant. This was a once in a generation opportunity, with Frost Fairs having been recorded only intermittently over the preceding centuries.
1434: "A great frost began on the 24th of November, and held till the 10th of February; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes and provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, and brought by land to the city." 1564: "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." 1608: "From Sunday, the tenth of January, until the fifteenth of the same, the frost grew so extreme, as the ice became firme, and removed not, and then all sorts of men, women, and children, went boldly upon the ice in most parts; some shot at prickes; others bowled and danced, with other variable pastimes, by reason of which concourse of people, there wore many that set up boothes and standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoomakers, and a barber's tent, &c." 1684: "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." 1715: "Booths sudden hide the Thames, long streets appear, And numerous games proclaim the crowded fair... Thick rising tents a canvass city build, And the loud dice resound through all the field." 1739: "Various shops were opened for the sale of toys, cutlery, and other light articles. Printing presses were set up and the usual drinking booths and puppet shows abounded. All sorts of sports and diversions were carried on, and the place became a perfect carnival, as if the populace were utterly oblivious of the distress and misery which existed on shore." 1789: "The river Thames, which at this season usually exhibits a dreary scene of languor and indolence, was this year the stage on which there were all kinds of diversions, bear-baiting, festivals, pigs and sheep roasted, booths, turnabouts, and all the various amusements of Bartholomew Fair multiplied and improved. From Putney Bridge in Middlesex, down to Rotherhithe, was one continued scene of merriment and jollity."
A great fog descended on London a few days after Christmas 1813, described at the time as "a darkness that might be felt." In January a deep frost set in, the harshest in living memory, including a snowstorm a full 48 hours long. Ice formed in the Thames, creating floes which gradually merged and froze, until the river was solid enough to support a place of entertainment. This was the five-day Frost Fair of February 1814, the last ever recorded on the Thames. Here's how events played out.
Sunday 30th January 1814: Lumpy ice on the river became firm enough for 70 people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. Monday 31st January 1814: The river downstream of Blackfriars Bridge froze solid enough that thousands were tempted onto it. Tuesday 1st February 1814: As Londoners gathered to make merry on the ice, the Frost Fair emerged. Thirty stalls selling spirits and ale formed a thoroughfare down the middle of the Thames nicknamed the 'City Road'. Wednesday 2nd February 1814: A handful of printing presses set up on the river to print commemorative souvenirs. One stallholder successfully roasted a sheep on the ice, sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’ Thursday 3rd February 1814: The fair expanded to include swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds and sliding-barges. Crowds thronged the 'City Road' until long after nightfall. Friday 4th February 1814: Anything labelled "bought on the Thames" sold like hot cakes. A large piece of ice cracked above London Bridge carrying away a man and two boys - later rescued. Saturday 5th February 1814: The fair continued to draw thousands, including donkey rides at a shilling a time. The wind later turned and rain fell, causing the ice to begin to crack. A rapid thaw set in, and many of those who lingered late had to be rescued. Sunday 6th February 1814: Early in the morning the tide began to flow again and broke up the ice. Monday 7th February 1814: "Immense fragments of ice yet floated, and numerous lighters, broken from their moorings, drifted in different parts of the river; many of them were complete wrecks. The frozen element soon attained its wonted fluidity and old Father Thames looked as cheerful and as busy as ever."
The Thames froze over again in 1855, 1893 and 1895, but never thick enough to support a Frost Fair. The rebuilding of London Bridge had speeded up the current, preventing thick ice from forming, and we shall probably never see the like again.
If you head down to the Museum in Docklands they've erected a special Frost Fair display in their main entrance hall. It's not huge, indeed the lady on the front desk apologised for its diminutive size. But it is the only place in London to see mementoes and souvenirs sold on the ice 200 years ago, including a hunk of gingerbread which (apparently) still retains a vaguely spicy smell. There are also some chippings from the lower portions of Blackfriars Bridge, usually inaccessible, and a leaflet printed on the Fair's last day giving J Frost notice to quit, and signed by A Thaw.
The exhibition's only at the museum until the end of March, but there is a more permanent memorial to the 1814 Frost Fair immediately adjacent to where it took place. Five slabs of grey slate in the subway under Southwark Bridge have been engraved by local artist Richard Kindersley to show scenes from the frozen Thames. There's also a poem, two lines per slab, based on handbills printed on the river at the time.
"Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done"