The Curious Story of River Thames’ Frost Fairs

June 13th 2016

Dancing, drinking, playing games and all kinds of revelry were standard fare on the River Thames in days gone by, when the water iced over and the river into a site of entertainment for all the family.

It’s hard to believe now but between 1309 and 1814 the River Thames froze at least 23 times and on five of these occasions it was so thick that it was possible to hold a fair. The first of these ‘Frost Fairs’ was in 1683-84, followed by fairs in 1716, 1739-40, 1789 and 1814.

Just take a look at this drawing from January 1716 below, that begins “Behold the Liquid Thames now frozen o’re” and shows how there was nine-pin skittles, people roasting oxen and mutton shoulder, taverns for getting a drink, printing presses, poetry/literature readings and boys sliding along the ice.

0016 45.tif
Courtesy of Museum of London

Other activities that would take place on the ice included sale of all kinds of food and drink, including stalls that would sell gingerbread men and gin (it seems that our ancestors liked to drink during these fairs), fairground attractions, as well as activities such as fox hunting and bull-baiting.

There’s a great passage from an article by Gentleman’s Magazine which sums up some of the activities happening in the fair of 1814:

“At every glance, there was a novelty of some kind or other. Gaming was carried on in all its branches. Many of the itinerant admirers of the profits gained by E O Tables, Rouge et Noir, Te-totum, wheel of fortune, the garter, were industrious in their avocations, and some of their customers left the lures without a penny to pay the passage over a plank to the shore. 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. Tea, coffee, aud eatables, were provided in abundance, and passengers were invited to eat by way of recording their visit. Several tradesmen, who at other times were deemed respectable, attended with their wares, and sold books, toys, and trinkets of almost every description.”

As mentioned in our article, Five Best Film Scenes Set On The Thames, the producers of the Pirates of the Caribbean films even considered recreating Thames’ frost fairs for On Stranger Tides but decided against it in the end due to the cost.

Elephants On Ice

The final ever frost fair started on 1st February 1814 and lasted for four days, with the majority of the fair taking place between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. The most startling aspect of this frost fair must be that an elephant was led across the river just below Blackfriars Bridge. This fair was documented in a book by George Davis called Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, which was in fact printed on the ice.

Yet even though it was strong to hold the weight of an elephant and a printing press it wasn’t completely prone to breaking. In The Times of 2 February 1814 they wrote that “in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon”.

In fact, there was injuries and casualties in a number of the frost fairs. In 1739 a huge section of ice gave away and swallowed whole tents, businesses and people. The worst tragedy occurred in 1789 when a ship, anchored to a riverside pub in Rotherhithe, was dragged away from its mooring by melting ice and succeeded to capsize on a nearby buidling, killing five people who were fast asleep in bed.

Here’s a little note that was printed using the printing press on the Thames. Obviously not everyone was enjoying the ice!

jack-frost
Courtesy of Museum of London

Could We Have Another Frost Fair?

It seems incredibly unlikely that we will ever have another frost fair. It’s true that our current climate would make this difficult, as average temperatures have increased since the 19th century. For instance, the average temperature of January 1814 was -2.9C. January 2010 was one of our most recent cold winters but this only averaged 1.4C.

The biggest problem though to staging a new frost fair is that the Thames has changed. A new London bridge was built in 1831 with fewer, wider arches. These allowed the tide to flow more freely (meaning more harder-to-freeze salty water in the river), and also making the Thames faster and hence making it even harder for freezing to occur.

How To Party On The Thames In The 21st Century

There may no longer be any frost fairs on the Thames, but there’s still plenty of options for having a party on the river. We offer boat hire for parties, corporate events and special occasions, and can arrange one-off events like weddings, birthday parties, clay-pigeon shooting and barbecues.