Between 1309 and 1814, the river Thames froze twenty-three times. This ice was thick enough during the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries on five occasions for a fair to be held on the ice. During this period the global climate phenomenon the Little Ice Age, where global temperatures dropped, caused the temperature to drop low enough for the Thames to freeze. Another contributor was the structure of London Bridge which had been built during the Middle Ages. The many arches of London Bridge meant that it created a dam like structure that meant the Thames froze more easily. A new London Bridge was built in the nineteenth century with fewer arches which as a result further limited the opportunity for the Thames to freeze.
Tom de Castella described the Frost fairs as ‘a cross between a Christmas market, circus and illegal rave’.
Food and drink were especially popular with a large number of bars appearing on the ice. However there were also printers, barbers, souvenir sellers and activities such as football. Ice skating too was popular especially with the introduction of iron ice skates in 1667. Less charming activities also happened upon the ice, likely exacerbated by the heavy drinking that took place, such as bear-baiting. The presence of booths on the Thames along with the footfall of Londoners accessing the ice, which was estimated to be thousands by contemporaries, shows how thick the ice was to withstand such an amount of activity. This also explains why despite the Thames freezing on twenty-three occasions that only on five occasions the ice was thick enough to actually host a frost fair.
The frost fairs brought all walks of life together, with the most privileged in society mixing with the least privileged. Even Charles II attended a frost fair and got a souvenir proving he had been there. Courtiers travelled via the ice to Westminster. The ice was free to access and allowed the poor to mingle.
This isn’t to say however that Frost Fairs were all happy. Unsurprisingly casualties happened when ice thinned or too much pressure was put on the ice. The other cause of death was with the cold weather with London’s poor freezing to death in their homes due to the cold weather and the lack of availability of coal due to it not being able to reach London as it normally was brought via by boat along the Thames. The stalling of London’s maritime economy therefore was another victim of the frost fairs. Not only were a number of goods prevented from reaching London such as coal but also those who worked on the Thames were left out of work. Many were forced to find other work with some allowing access and escorting people onto the ice.
The last frost fair was in 1814; with even contemporaries realising it would be the last on the Thames due to the gradual warming weather. This along with the new London Bridge means we are highly unlikely today to ever see another frost fair on the Thames. The landscape of the river has also changed, becoming narrower and deeper as well as the introduction of the sewage system beneath the Thames, all of which contribute to the Thames being less likely to freeze. While a relic of our past, the frost fairs are an interesting time for London’s history that we can easily understand today.
J. P., Ward, ‘The Taming of the Thames: Reading the River in the Seventeenth Century’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 71 (2008), 55-75
T. de Castella, Frost fair: When an elephant walked on the frozen River Thames : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25862141
The Thames Frost Fairs: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Thames-Frost-Fairs/
C., Milmo, When winter really was winter: the last of the London Frost Fairs: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/when-winter-really-was-winter-the-last-of-the-london-frost-fairs-9100338.html
The Frost Fairs: http://www.visitbankside.com/history/frost-fairs