07 June 2016

Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames

Years ago I wrote about a shocking skating disaster that I assumed happened in Russia but actually occurred in Britain. The newspapers at the time (Jan 1867) discussed how, until the accident, Londoners loved skating in Regent’s Park on the frozen ornamental boating lake, hundreds at a time.

I assumed those were the few Londoners with enough leisure time on their hands to have fun and play sport on the frozen water, during the winter months. But as Richard Cavendish in History Today (Nov 2015) and Ben Johnson in Historic UK made clear, using the ice for public leisure activities had a long and happy history for many ordinary Londoners.

The River Thames has frozen over many times in the last 700 years, and a number of festivals known as the Thames Frost Fairs sprang up on the river. The first recorded time people took to the frozen riv­er for organised entertainments was 1309, when a fire was built on the ice, and hares were chased by dogs for sport. But a frozen river was irregular and unpredictable back then.

Even with colder temperatures, the Thames did not totally freeze over in the London area until 1831. Clearly the Thames was wider and shallower pre-1831 and it had not yet been embanked. But mostly the river had been impeded by the structure of Old London Bridge. It had 19 narrow arches and each of the 20 piers was supported by large break-waters. When chunks of ice got caught between them, it slowed the flow of the water above the bridge, making it more likely to freeze over. It did!! ... sometimes for up to two months at time.

When the old, medieval London Bridge was demolished and the new London Bridge opened in 1831, it only had five arches. Once this structure was in place, the Thames never froze over in the London area again, despite temperatures dropping to -20C at times in very cold winters.

A Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs 
shows booths, coaches, sledges, sedan-chairs and groups of people, 
painted in 1684, by whom? 

Frost Fairs were carnivals on the ice. Once the Thames was frozen, traders grabbed their chance; dozens of shops popped up overnight. Unlicensed gambling, drinking and dancing were held at the fairs, along with stalls selling food and drink, skittle alleys and fair-ground rides. Souvenirs were cheaply available and printers setting up their presses, making cards & popular sheet-music. Vendors sold a very hot, very alcoholic drink made of wormwood wine and gin called purl. People enjoyed bull-baiting, puppet shows, nine-pin bowling and ox-roasting. Boys played games of football on the ice.

Even kings and queens joined in the festivities. Henry VIII travelled from Central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in the 1536 winter. Queen Elizabeth I practised archery on the ice in the winter of 1564. One fair apparently attracted King Charles who enjoyed a spit-roasted ox.

The first big, official Frost Fair occurred during the winter of 1607-8. During December the ice had been firm enough to allow people to walk from Southwark to the City, but it was not until January that people started setting up camp on it. There were football pitches, bowling matches, fruit-sellers, shoemakers and barbers. Pubs located on both banks of the river made a fortune during Frost Fairs.

The most famous frost fair, Blanket Fair, was held in 1683-4. Diariest John Evelyn wrote that whole streets of booths were set out on the Thames. He crossed the river on the ice on foot once, to dine with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth, and again in his coach, from Lambeth to the Horseferry at Millbank. The ice had now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths in which they roasted meat, and had diverse shops of wares quite across the town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over. Hackney coaches began to carry fares from Somerset House and the Temple to Southwark. Gallants in the fashionable dresses of the day were promenading, with wigs and swords; while the ladies, true to the instinct of their sex, were shopping briskly.

Profitable games included E O Tables, Rouge et Noir, Te-totum and the wheel of fortune; skittles was played by several parties; the drink­ing tents were filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat round large fires. Tea, coffee and edibles were provided in abundance, and passengers were invited to eat by way of recording their visit. Tradesmen attended with their wares, and sold books, toys, trinkets and souvenirs.

London's Frost Fair, 1814. The section of river between Blackfriars and London Bridges was renamed City Road and lined with many tradesmen. Photo credit: The Telegraph 

Londoners might have been rugged citizens back then, but even so, the Frost Fairs sometimes lasted only a few weeks, and only in cold wint­ers. People had to be aware of rapid thawing, and the potential loss of life and property. During the fair of 1739, for example, a whole band of ice gave away and swallowed up tents and businesses, as well as people.

In 1789 a ship was anchored to a riverside pub in Rotherhithe, steadily tied until the ship veered about in the melting ice at night. Unfortunately the rigid cables carried away the beam, and levelled the house to the ground; five persons asleep in their beds were accidentally killed.

The last ever London Frost Fair took place in Jan 1814. Thousands of people turned up every day that winter, and there was said to be every possible form of entertainment including a parading elephant at below Blackfriars bridge! Poor elephant! Although only lasting for five days, this was to be one of the largest fairs on record. By 1815 he climate was milder, Old London Bridge had been replaced and the Thames flowed more freely.


bazza said...

Hello Hels. With the warming of the planet there will probably never be another Frost Fair. Londoners still love fairs though! The origin of the name Mayfair (now the most expensive part of London) is from the two-week May Fair once held in the Shepherd Market area until the 1700s when it was moved to East End of London due to a little too much debauchery!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Deb said...


You would wonder how many days of holidays workers got each year. I would not like icy weather, but I would love the party events.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am trying to recall frost fairs being mentioned in old novels, in which every form of entertainment was explored. They probably were discussed, but specific instances don;t come to mind.

Frozen rivers were also of fascination in America, and many 19th century photographs show frozen rivers and waterfalls, especially around Niagara. Sledding and skating were (and are) common here, each event having its own outdoor-party atmosphere, often with nearby bonfires, etc.

Andrew said...

It is extraordinary to think of the Thames frozen. In our lifetime we have seen so much warming. Rivers that used to freeze fifty years ago no longer do. Glaciers are so much reduced. In Melbourne we rarely see frost and never ice like we did thirty years ago. I am not sure I would ever trust ice under my feet.

Hels said...


Londoners debauching? Hard to believe!

But you are so right about the thrill of the two-week May Fair each year. Spring had sprung, the dreary winter weather had finished and ordinary working families were looking forward to fun and outdoor activities.

Hels said...


Agreed. I imagine that a typical work day lasted 10-12 hours per day, six days a week. So religious holidays were the only time families could relax and enjoy themselves. Fairs must have been seen as the most exciting time ever!

Finally the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 gave workers a few paid holiday days each year!

Hels said...


I have also seen lots 19th century photographs show frozen rivers, sledding and skating in the USA, Canada, Netherlands etc. But I would love to see photos/paintings of shops, food tents, alcoholic drink bars, musical groups etc on ice. The first lot of photos would be respectable and sport-oriented; the second lot would be filled with frivolous fun!

Hels said...


Even if rivers did ice over again, I would also not trust ice under the feet either. Fancy driving across the river in a carriage with all its horses, like John Evelyn said he did!!!

Mrs Fancy-Pants said...

And there I was feeling nervous about driving over a frozen lake in Minnesota! Not sure I would have relaxed enough to party.

Hels said...

Mrs Fancy-Pants

I wonder if our generation is ridiculously protective of our children and adults, or if we are sensibly cautious about risk to life and limb. My grandparents lived their entire young lives on frozen lakes, without any adult supervision. My parents left the house unlocked so that neighbours' children could pop in whenever they wanted. Yet I wouldn't allow my sons to cross the road alone, until they were married!

I don't know the strength of Minnesota ice, but it seems the cautious view must be correct.