Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries it was not uncommon for the Thames to freeze over for weeks at a time and, since the Middle Ages, the river had frozen in London on at least 23 occasions. It was colder back then for a start (the average temperature for January 1814 in the UK was -2.9°C, whereas in January 2016 the temperature averaged 4.6°C. Even in the most recent ‘harsh’ winter – 2010 – the average was 1.4°C) as Britain and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere were locked in a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. The other catalyst was the river’s architecture. The medieval London Bridge and its piers were spaced quite close together and during winter pieces of ice would get lodged, effectively damming up the river and making it easier to freeze.
Naturally, the harsh winters often brought famine and death and, without a navigable river, livelihoods were also at risk. London was one of the world’s leading ports and when the Thames froze, watermen, who transported people along the river, and lightermen, who moved goods, could not earn. So, when the ice was thick enough to withstand it, enterprising and resilient locals organised ‘frost fairs’, charging punters and traders to access the frozen river.
There had been at least five major frost fairs on the Thames since the early 1600s, as well as countless smaller ones – a cross between a circus, Christmas market and what we would call an ‘illegal rave’ today. When the river slowed and ice floes formed on the stretch between London Bridge and Blackfriars back on 1 February 1814, the city’s inhabitants responded, as their forebears once had, by settling down to a raucous, unregulated five-day mid-winter party. Within hours the Thames had been transformed into a frozen pleasure gardens and thousands turned out for a slice of the hedonism. Boatmen, deprived of being able to ferry passengers across the river, set up signs declaring it was safe to walk over the ice and traders and pedlars hastily constructed shops, pubs, skating rinks and food stalls. Locals, from rich to poor, revelled in the excitement with many recognising it as a ‘once in a lifetime’ event with the opportunity for some debauchery.
Activities and entertainment at frost fairs ranged from bull-baiting, horse and coach races and puppet plays to sledging, nine-pin bowling, ‘throwing at cocks’ and dancing. The 1814 fair even had it’s own main street – signposted The City Road – where hawkers sold trinkets and souvenirs, children’s swings were erected and gambling dens appeare. There are even eye-witness accounts of an elephant being led over the ice near Blackfriars Bridge! Close to a dozen printing presses were also dragged out and erected on the frozen river, with typographers churning out poems to commemorate the ‘great frost’. One printer named George Davis published a 124-page book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State from his outdoor printing stall.
Yet, the main draw appears to have been food and drink. Oxen were roasted in front of roaring fires, mutton was served in slices and mince pies and gingerbread blocks sold, all permeated (quite liberally) with alcohol; although tea, coffee and hot chocolate were also on sale. Temporary bars and ‘fuddling tents’ fashioned from sail cloth and oars (named so because of the ruinous effect of the strong spirits being offered) popped up over the ice, selling all manner of intoxicating liquors. Purl, similar to Vermouth, was a mix of gin and wormwood wine served hot and Mum was a beer infused with spices. Fruit and gingerbread-sellers also sold cups of gin to accompany their produce.
Risks were, of course, inevitable. As well as the threat of pickpockets, visitors were undoubtedly fleeced both by the watermen, who charged a toll of 2d or 3d plus tip for access alone, and the numerous vendors who smelt a tidy profit. The ice also claimed several casualties, giving way in places and swallowing up businesses, as well as people.
Of course, when there’s ice involved, the event must reach its seasonal end. By the fifth day, 5 February 1814, the had wind changed direction, snow became rain and the ominous sound of ice cracking started to reverberate. The pedlars and punters scattered.
People didn’t know it then, but the 1814 frost fair would be the last. In the 200 or so years which have elapsed since, the Thames has never frozen solid enough for the spectacle to be repeated. The building of a new London Bridge in 1831, which had fewer arches, allowed more water to travel from the sea up river unencumbered (saltier water has a lower freezing point) and once Victorian engineers had constructed the Embankment, the narrowed Thames flowed faster and was less likely to freeze.