Here in the northern hemisphere we are a bit over two weeks into winter. Where I live in Kentucky, it gets quite cold… or at least colder than when I lived in central California. For those living in Wyoming or Alaska, a few inches of snow sporadically falling and temperatures at or slightly below freezing is laughably mild in comparison! Whatever the usual weather patterns where one resides, inevitably there will be periods of unanticipated severity. When hit with a super intense winter storm or freezing snap, even if harsh weather is the norm, dealing with abnormal severity creates unique challenges for the people living in the area.
With modern technology, adapting to and coping with severe weather is far easier than it would have been four hundred years ago. After researching the history of the great frosts of the “little ice age” which plagued the European continent for several centuries, I have mad respect for the resilient, resourceful, and inventive people who dealt with the situation.
My previous blog post covers this history in more depth, so be sure to read it first—
How the Thames froze, and the first Frost Fair of 1608
When it comes to the disaster of the River Thames freezing to the point of drastically or completely inhibiting navigating the water, it was the watermen who first recognized the changes and perceived the encroaching doom. These watermen — also called boatmen and ferrymen — earned a living by transporting goods and passengers along the river, so naturally they faced declining work and a collapse of business before anyone else. They are largely to thank for organizing the gatherings dubbed Frost Fairs, suggesting London merchants set up shops on the ice. Shopkeepers, of course, needed scant encouragement as they too were swiftly feeling the pinch of disrupted deliveries.
In the winters between the original Frost Fair of 1608 and the second such-named event in 1621, the cold climate trend had continued. For instance, the winter of 1614-15 was especially frigid. Several large rivers in northern England froze solid, snow fell at unprecedented levels, and a long frost caused countless problems at the time and for the year ahead.
Suffice to say, Londoners did not have to learn ancient history or listen to stories by their grandparents to know that another freeze would happen. It was simply a matter of when, with the “when” certain to be sooner rather than later.
THE FROST FAIR OF 1620-21
“This year a frost enabled the Londoners to carry on all manner of sports and trades upon the river.” ~Old and New London, by E. Walford
In 1620, a waterman named John Taylor (1578-1653) became an officer of the newly formed Watermen’s Company. He estimated that 40,000 people made a living off the water, a sobering consideration in relation to a frozen river! Taylor is a fascinating man in several ways, and at the end of this blog are two links if interested in reading more about him. Taylor became known as the “Water Poet” due to being the writer of some 150 poems, pamphlets, and travel diaries about his work as a ferryman.
A lengthy poem Taylor wrote in 1621 speaks more to the suffering brought on by the six weeks of bitter cold, but also contains a few lines referring to the Frost Fair on the Thames.
But once againe, I’ll turn me to my Theame
Of the conglutinated Frozen streame;
Upon whose Glassie face both too and fro,
Five hundred people all at once did go.
At Westminster there went three Horses over
Which safely did from shore to shore recover,
There might be seen spic’d Cakes and roasted Pigs,
Beere, Ale, Tobacco, Apples, Nuts, and Figs,
Fires made of Char-coles, Faggots, and Sea-coles,
Playing and couz’ning at the Pidg’on-holes:
Some, for two Pots at Tables, Cards, or Dice:
Some slipping in betwixt two Cakes of Ice:
Some going on their businesse and affaires,
From Bank-side to Pauls or to Trig-staires.
In the above portion of the poem, “couz’ning” is an old word meaning “trickery or deceit” and “Pidg’on-holes” is a form of gambling. That line, along with the next, make it clear that gambling games were a part of Frost Fair fun, along with food and merchandise. Enterprising out-of-work watermen, who considered the river their terrain, stood guard at the water-stairs, demanding Londoners pay a fee before stepping onto the ice. They opened the larger barges frozen in place as stages for impromptu performances and ferrymen turned smaller boats into sleds to pull paid passengers over the ice. Horse-drawn coaches crunched over the ice, navigating between pedestrians, hundreds of tents and stalls, and areas for assorted ball games.
The image below is a diorama from an exhibit at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Crafted by Thorp Modelmakers in 1912, it is a panoramic reconstruction of the frozen Thames looking toward the Southwark during the eight-week freeze during which the Frost Fair of 1621 took place.
As the 17th century marched on, severe winters continued unabated. Records indicate extreme frosts several times, including the Thames freezing over. The next noted frozen solid Thames was in 1634-35, and then again in 1648, diarist John Evelyn wrote: “Now was the Thames frozen over, and horrid tempests of wind.”
Records exist of the Thames “more or less frozen over” in 1655, and then, in 1663, diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: “8th February: being very hard frost… 28th August: cold all night and this morning, and a very great frost they say, abroad; which is much, having had no summer at all, almost.” The winter of 1672-73 was particularly harsh with multiple records of unprecedented winds, snow and ice, and frozen rivers and lakes all over England.
However, there is no mention of a designated Frost Fair taking place during these years. Perhaps the Thames wasn’t frozen hard enough to halt all seafaring traffic or to risk hundreds of people walking over the surface. Perhaps the “milder” frosts meant only mini-fairs along the edges were necessary. Who knows? Whatever the case, Londoners had not forgotten and were ready when the next massive freeze hit forty-three years later.
THE FROST FAIR OF 1683-84
Behold the wonder of this present age,
A famous river now become a stage.
Question not what I now declare to you,
The Thames is now both fair and market too.
The winter of 1683-84 was the harshest in a sequence of harsh winters. Lasting from the beginning of December until the middle of February, the ice upon the Thames reached a thickness of 11 inches. For many Londoners, this was the first severe freeze in their lives. Food and supply shortages, higher prices for goods, scarcity of wood and coal for heat, increased poverty from loss of work, and an outbreak of smallpox intensified the hardships of the people, particularly the poorer citizens.
Yet, strange as it may seem, the extremity of the situation led to the most extravagant Frost Fair on the frozen Thames — dubbed “Freezeland Street” — of the 17th century.
“…[the frost] congealed the river Thames to that degree, that another city, as it were, was erected thereon; where, by the great number of streets and shops, with their rich furniture, it represented a great fair, with a variety of carriages, and diversions of all sorts; and near Whitehall a whole ox was roasted on the ice.” ~Maitland
The Frost Fair of 1684 was abundantly recorded in words and images. Two extensive sources are John Evelyn (1620-1706) — diarist, writer, and fellow of the Royal Society — and Dutch artist Abraham Hondius (1625-1691). Both men witnessed the Frost Fair first hand, recording in their unique artistic methods, some quotes and images shared in this blog. Furthermore, the unique addition of printed broadsides, pamphlets, and souvenir cards reveal precise details, often in very poetic language. The link at the end to Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs on gutenberg.org covers many of these in full.
On January 1, 1684, John Evelyn wrote in his diary, “…the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there has not been the like.”
“The weather is so very sharp and the frost so great that the river here is quite frozen over, so that for these three days past people have gone over it in several places, and many booths are built on it between Lambeth and Westminster, where they roast meat and sell drink.” ~The Duke of York (James II) to son-in-law William of Orange, January 4, 1684
See how the noble river in a trice
Is turned as it were one spacious street of ice.
And who’ld believe to see revived there,
In January, Bartholomew fair.
Where all the mobile in crowds resort,
As on firm land, to walk, and trade, and sport;
Now booths do stand where boats did lately row,
And on its surface up and down men go…
In the painting above by Hondius, the wintery atmosphere is so vividly shown that one can almost feel the frigid breeze and hear the fluttering banners atop the double column of temporary stalls. Also note the sailboats frozen in place, probably utilized as stages for entertainers, and the horse-drawn carriages and sleds.
“I went across the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts, and horses passed over.” ~John Evelyn, January 9, 1684
Certain traders who set up on the ice sold special items for visitors to buy as a souvenir of their extraordinary visit to the Frost Fair. The silver spoon to the right is one example, engraved with the date and buyer’s name. Another is the tiny glass mug seen below, inscribed on its metal mount with the words “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4.”
A printer named Croom came up with the idea of selling souvenir cards for sixpence each. These novelty cards were personalized with the customer’s name, the date, and a proclamation that it was printed on the frozen Thames. Croom’s cards were extremely popular and it is said he profited five pounds a day. Most remarkably, Croom printed a souvenir card for King Charles II and his court! Inspired by Croom (and wishing they had thought of it first) other printers sold “tickets” to the Frost Fair, personalizing them with the names of customers.
“The frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames …
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water…” ~John Evelyn, January 24, 1684
According to contemporary broadsheets (broadsides), the stalls sold every imaginable goods: cloths and blankets, ribbons, plates, earthenware, roast beef, coles and corn, brandy, beer, ale, French and Spanish wine, tobacco, coffee, chocolate, tea, hot codlins, pancakes, gingerbread, duck, goose, rabbit, turkey, toys and baubles… just to name a few! Sports and activities included football, dancing and fiddling, stilt walking, skittles, cups & balls, playing at Pigeon holes, nine-pins, donkey racing, bull-baiting and bear-baiting, fox-hunting, “throwing at cocks,” sledding, puppet plays, ice sliding and skating, theatre, and more. Many of the activities noted in this paragraph are depicted in the two drawings below.
The broadside below is titled the “Wonders of the Deep” and was sold as a woodcut illustration representing the Frost Fair. The subtitle notes: “The most Exact Description of the Frozen River of Thames… as it appeared during the memorable Frost which began about the middle of December, and ended on the 28th of February, anno 1683-4.”
Do these icy extravaganzas sound fun to you?
Return on Friday as I continue to detail the Great Frost Fairs on the Thames,
next up those which were held during the 18th Century.