Frost Fairs on the Thames in the 18th Century
The cold spell known by scientists as the “little ice age” continued throughout the 18th century. So too did the hardships associated with such harsh weather, and so too did the Frost Fairs held when the River Thames running through London froze completely solid. Both the severe freezes and the fairs were extraordinary events worthy of deep study, and while this series of blogs are not intended to be research articles delving into every aspect, I felt it was important to cover as completely as possible. For that reason, in total there will be four blogs on the topic. Before reading on here, be sure to read the previous blogs linked below to understand the full context. I shall complete the topic next Monday with the last Great Frost Fair held in 1814. Be sure to return for that!
THE FROST FAIR OF 1715-16
The next hard winter to strike Londoners began in 1715 when a number of heavy snow falls clogged the city streets and the low temperatures once again froze the Thames, this time for seven weeks.
Entrepreneurs erected booths, tents, and pavilions on the ice for selling all sorts of goods and services. Horse-drawn wagons, coaches, barrows, carts, and vehicles of all sorts were taken onto the ice to transport goods and flocks of people across the frozen surface.
Continuing a trend established during the 1683 Frost Fair, printers set up shop on the ice to publish a variety of printed paraphernalia. Not many of the paper tickets and fliers from the 1716 Frost Fair have survived. One example is above and three are shared below.
One advertisement for the Frost Fair appeared as follows—
“This is to give notice to gentlemen and others that pass upon the Thames during this frost, that over against Whitehall-stairs they may have their names printed, fit to paste in any book, to hand down the memory of the season to future ages.
You that walk there, and do desyn to tell
Your children’s children what this year befell,
Go print your names, and take a dram within;
For such a year as this, has seldom been.”
A prominent London family of printers and booksellers, led by Ichabod Dawks, published a regular broadside called Dawk’s Newsletter. According to the January 14, 1716 volume, the event: “…attracted the attention of many of the nobility, and brought the Prince of Wales, to visit Frost Fair.”
“Last Tuesday the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Marlborough, with several other noblemen, went on the Thames on the ice from Old Palace-yard to Lambeth, and back again, through the loud huzzas and acclamations of the people, who showed a general satisfaction at the sight of his Royal Highness.” ~The Weekly Journal, or British Gazetteer on January 21st
The woodcut below was printed on the ice for Mrs. Mary Malkinton. On the right side is a legend showing the various booths and activities visitors could engage in.
“The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for the sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town: thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water, that now lie congealed into ice. On Thursday, a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there, as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, Printing-presses are kept upon the ice, where many persons have their names printed, to transmit the wonders of the season to posterity.” ~Dawk’s Newsletter, January 14, 1716
New this year, or at least the first time so recorded, was the appearance of an enthusiastic preacher delivering a passionate sermon: “…held forth to a motley congregation on the mighty waters, with a zeal fiery enough to have thawed himself through the ice, had it been susceptible to religious warmth.”
By early February the ice began to thaw and split. The heavy, abnormally high tides of the Thames broke the ice, raising it upwards of fourteen feet and flooding cellar in buildings alongside the river. Frost Fair revelers were reluctant to end their fun but by the 15th the party was over.
THE FROST FAIR OF 1739-40
This bitter cold snap began on Christmas Day, the frost lasting until the following year when the slow thaw started on the 17th of February. Unique to 1739, a powerful storm struck the Thames causing great damage to boats and vessels. Icebergs and floes wreaked havoc, freezing together and covering the surface of the river. Note the painting below of the Thames landscape as an alien scene of a snowy field with uneven hills of ice and icebergs protruding through the surface.
As with prior frosts, the acute weather caused distress amongst all Londoners, especially the working class and the poor. Coal could hardly be obtained, and food and water were equally scarce.
“…the watermen and fishermen, with a peterboat in mourning, and the carpenters, bricklayers, &c., with their tools and utensils in mourning, walked through the streets in large bodies, imploring relief for their own and families’ necessities; and, to the honour of the British character, this was liberally bestowed. Subscriptions were also made in the different parishes, and great benefactions bestowed by the opulent, through which the calamities of the season were much mitigated. A few days after the frost had set in, great damage was done among the shipping in the river Thames by a high wind, which broke many vessels from their moorings, and drove them foul of each other, while the large sheets of ice that floated on the stream, overwhelmed various boats and lighters, and sunk several corn and coal vessels. By these accidents many lives were lost; and many others were also destroyed by the intensity of the cold, both on land and water.
Above the Bridge, the Thames was completely frozen over, and tents and numerous booths were erected on it for selling liquors, &c., to the multitudes that daily flocked thither for curiosity or diversion. The scene here displayed was very irregular, and had more the appearance of a fair on land, than of a frail exhibition, the only basis of which was congealed water.”
As the above quote states, with the weather so overwhelming there was limited work for many trades, not only the watermen who worked on the Thames. A march was held to bring their plight to the attention of the rich and the rulers of the city, who granted some relief to the suffering people. Once the punishing storms abated, another Frost Fair sprung up on the ice. Following the now-established pattern, tented stalls sold all sorts of goods and provided a variety of services. Drinking and eating booths, puppet shows, and a plethora of entertainment and sports were to be had. A carnival atmosphere prevailed as the people sought to forget the problems and difficulties brought on by the severe weather.
Again the printers set up shop, creating the usual tickets personalized on demand. Three surviving examples are shared below, and the one to the right has an elaborate portrait of King George II.
In addition, special items which could be personalized were given as souvenirs. The only surviving item is kept in the Museum of London, a pewter sauce boat (to the right) with the engraving: “R G Bought on ye Thames at King Stairs 1740.”
The paper engraving below is dated January 28, 1740. The small print is difficult to discern, even in a large size, so here is the description from The British Museum—
View of the frozen Thames, covered with blocks of ice, looking towards buildings on the south bank where a potter’s or glassmaker’s kiln emits clouds of smoke. In the foreground a crowd mills around a number of booths and tents, including three with signs lettered, “The Noble Art of Printing”, “Frost Fare Coffie House” and “Friezland Coffee House”; in another tent a printer is at work on a press and prints are pinned around the entrance; to the right hangs a large screen apparently painted with scenes. In the background a man pulls a small carriage, others are skating and another is helped out of a hole in the ice; boats are frozen into the ice. In the foreground, on the left, another boy has fallen into a hole, and, and on the right, a man prepares to fling a cat; eight lines of verses engraved below.
THE FROST FAIR OF 1767-68
Behold the liquid Thames now frozen o’er
That lately SHIPS of mighty burden bore.
Here you PRINT your name tho’ cannot write
‘Cause numb’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.
At the end of December in 1767, a severe frost hit England and continued to strengthen until January 16th, at which time the Thames froze over. As expected, river vessels became trapped in the ice and many were severely damaged or sunk by the ice flows moving with the tides. The actual temperature did not dip as low as in previous frosts, but similar to the weather event of 1739, violent storms caused worse damage to trapped boats as well as city buildings. Waterways were unnavigable and roads impassible. Many lives were lost (on and off the river) and the calamity of scarce food and high prices swiftly effected Londoners. The Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Harley, provided subsidies on bringing fish to Billingsgate market, helping to alleviate the suffering.
Once again, a Frost Fair sprang up on the ice. However, unlike previous fairs, the choppy ice wasn’t as safe or thick. Sports on the river were curtailed and thinner ice kept merchants closer to the banks with fewer Londoners attending. On top of these problems, the cold abated quicker than expected, the melting ice ending the Frost Fair well before the end of January. Consequently, there are no surviving souvenirs from the event and very few records.
“The navigation of the river was completely stopped, while below bridge the damage done by the floating ice was enormous. Ships, barges and small craft were driven hither and thither; many were sunk and driven on shore, and a great number of human lives were sacrificed.” ~London on Thames, by G H Birch
THE FROST FAIR OF 1788-89
O roving muse, recall the wondrous year,
When winter reigned in bleak Britannia’s air;
When hoary Thames, with frosted oziers crowned,
Was three long moons in icy fetters bound.
Londoners did not know it at the time, but the winter beginning in 1788 would be the final one in that decade severe enough to warrant a Frost Fair. Temperatures started dropping in November, the frost hitting hardest on the 25th. It is recorded that the thermometer stood at eleven degrees below freezing point in the very midst of the city.
On January 5th of 1789, the Thames was frozen solid and would stay so for seven weeks. It took less than a week for a Frost Fair to be launched. Along with the by-then standard sellers, a variety of amusements were provided for the visitors, including puppet-shows and the exhibition of wild beasts.
“The silver Thames was frozen o’er,
No difference twixt the stream and shore;
The like no man hath seen before,
Except he lived in days of yore.”
~ Illustrated Pennant, by Crowle
The Gentleman’s Magazine reported on the activities on a regular basis, beginning with an entry for Saturday, January 10, 1789: “Thirteen men drove a wagon carrying a ton of coal from Loughborough, Leicestershire and delivered it to the Prince of Wales at Carlton House…” The men were paid four guineas by the clerk of the cellars, but when his Highness heard of their feat, he ordered they be rewarded with 20 guineas and a pot of beer each.
On the 12th, Gentleman’s Magazine reported, “A young bear was baited on the ice, opposite to Redriff, which drew multitudes together, and fortunately no accident happened to interrupt their sport.”
“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; not a gloomy face to be seen, but all cheerfulness, arising apparently from business and bustle.” ~Gentleman’s Magazine
As has been noted with each period of extreme weather, the common folk suffered even as all Londoners enjoyed the fun diversions offered on the ice. Interestingly, it is specifically recorded that the Prince of Wales (he who would later be the Prince Regent) donated £1000 for the relief of the poor. Additionally, the City of London subscribed £1500 towards supporting such persons as were not in the habit of receiving alms.
Continuing the reality of tragedy amid the attempts to distract and cope with the Frost Fair, the London Chronicle reported on January 15, “…the ice was so powerful as to cut the cables of two vessels lying at the old Rose Chair, and drive them through the great arch of London bridge; when their masts becoming entangled with the balustrades, both were broken and many persons hurt.”
On January 17th, a second disaster struck in a huge way. The captain of a vessel negotiated an agreement with the owner of a riverside pub off Rotherhithe to secure his ship by attaching one anchor to a thick beam in the house and a second anchor inside the cellar. That very night, the weather worsened, upsetting the currents and veering the ship about. The anchor cables held fast, but not so lucky was the building. It was leveled to the ground, crashing into the river, and in the process killing five persons asleep in their beds.
Yet, despite these horrific happenings on top of the usual and expected miseries resulting from treacherous weather, Londoners flocked to the Frost Fair.
“The Thames at Irongate to the opposite shore is frozen over, numbers of persons having walked across yesterday. At Shadwell the Thames is likewise frozen over, several booths are fixed on the ice; and yesterday an ox was roasted whole, and sold to the people who were skaiting and sliding. The scene on the river is very entertaining. From Putney Bridge upwards, the river is completely frozen over, and people walk to and from the different villages on the face of the deep. Opposite to Windsor street, booths have been erected since Friday last, and a fair is kept on the river.” ~The Annual Register on February 12, 1789
Share your thoughts on these 18th Century Frost Fairs.
Be sure to return next Monday for the final blog on this topic covering
the final Great Frost Fair on the icy Thames in 1814.