How the Thames froze, and the First Frost Fair of 1608
From roughly 1300 to 1850, planet Earth endured lower than normal temperatures in what is known by scientists as a “Little Ice Age.” During these centuries, temperatures fluctuated (as climate has always tended to do) with some years resulting in extreme frigidity. Long winters with heavier snowfalls and deep freezes hit hard on certain years, so intense that large lakes and major rivers froze solid.
Remarkably, the Thames was one of those major rivers that froze over, several times in fact.
How could this happen, you may be asking. Several reasons, as it turns out, with the colder then typical temperatures only a contributing factor. To begin with, the River Thames three-hundred plus years ago was much shallower, not neatly contained within stone embankments, and flowed slower. These difference alone would have made it easier to freeze. However, a huge factor was the presence of the Old London Bridge. Completed in 1209, the 926 feet long Bridge was constructed on nineteen arches supported by small piers with projecting starlings designed to serve as a protective barrier from invading forces. These arched supports and starlings quickly became blocked with floating ice and debris, the Bridge essentially becoming a dam that slowed the Thames water flow even further.
Compounding matters, water levels and directional flow in the Thames fluctuated widely. Salinity varied dramatically, and with a combined lower-than-normal salinity and colder temperature, the water froze incredibly fast and hard.
Historians are unsure how often the Thames froze solid, although they all agree it happened at least seven times between 1400 and 1608 when the first documented Frost Fair took place. Even prior to the so-called “Little Ice Age” and completion of London Bridge, it was not unheard of for the Thames to partially or wholly freeze. One of the earliest accounts comes from A.D. 250 when it was said to have frozen hard for nine weeks. In A.D. 923, the river iced over and wheeled traffic transported goods along its length for thirteen weeks. Again in the first century, in A.D. 998, the Thames was frozen for five weeks.
In the reign of Stephen, in the year 1150, “after a very wet summer there was in December so great a frost that horses and carriages crossed it upon the ice as safely as upon the dry ground, and that the frost lasted till the following month of March.“
Again in 1281 the Thames was frozen over, and upon the ice thawing and breaking up, five of the arches of Old London Bridge (a mere 70 years since erecting) were “borne downe and carried away with the streame.“
During the winter of 1309-10, several London Bridge arches were damaged by ice during a severe winter when the Thames was frozen. A possible “frost fair” held on the Thames can be inferred by statements in some chronicles and reports of people walking across the Thames. According to contemporary reports, “dancing took place around a fire built on the ice & a hare was coursed (chased) on the frozen waterway.“
The winter of 1407-08 is regarded by climatologists as one of the most difficult on record. The frost lasted for 15 weeks and people were able to walk across the frozen Thames. According to Ian Currie (a noted authority on historical weather events) it was “one of the most snowy & was of outstanding duration.” This frost did not only effect England. Ice in the Baltic had allowed traffic between the Scandinavian nations, and wolves had passed over the ice from Norway to Denmark.
In the winter of 1410, it is recorded in the Chronicles of the Grey Friars of London, “Thys yere was the grete frost and ise, and most sharpest winter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men myght in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.” This frost lasted for 14 weeks and the Thames was turned into a roadway to ease congestion in the city.
In 1434-35, records note “…the Thames was frozen, from below London Bridge to Gravesend, from December 25th to February 10th, when the merchandise which came to the Thames mouth was carried to London by land.” This frost lasted from late November all the way to Valentine’s Day.
Again in 1515, it is noted that the Thames is frozen “…and carts crossed on the ice to and from Lambeth to Westminster.”
A 1536 report claims King Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour traveled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river.
In 1564, Holinshed noted that, “…the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over & along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, & on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge & Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods & high waters, that bare down bridges & houses, & drowned many people in England.” Queen Elizabeth I and her court took to the ice frequently for archery practice and other sports. There are recordings of young boys playing games of football on the ice and of skaters glided up and down the river on newly invented iron skates imported from Holland.
Those are only a few of several documented incidences. Check out the links at the end of this blog for more information on past references to the Thames freezing.
Thus, while not exactly an unprecedented occurrence, the Thames freezing solid was relatively rare and didn’t last long. In 1608, forty years since the prior significant frost, it would have surprised most Londoners for the Thames to do more than partially freeze. And, while skating and sledding over the ice sounds like fun, few would have been brave enough to willingly venture far out onto the surface… unless absolutely necessary.
It is important to note that a frozen Thames, in addition to other rivers and seaports of England which faced the same freezes, created an economic disaster. Some freezes were light and/or lasted only days or maybe two to three weeks, hence why they may not have been recorded or only briefly mentioned. Others, however, lasted well over a month, the two longest for three months each. Stop for a moment to consider how a society dependent upon the rivers for trade and fishing (and so much more) could rapidly be devastated by the catastrophe. London’s primacy among its European neighbors as a maritime trading centre came to a virtual standstill. Boats were locked solid in the ice and workers were laid off in what became known as the “dead vacation” for reasons not solely due to being unemployed.
Imagine the damage from excessive cold and thick ice to structures and fragile human bodies. Exact death numbers are not known, but surely it would have been high.
Quite unlike people inhabiting the western world today who are pathetically dependent upon technology and someone else solving their problems, humans of the past were innovative and enterprising. They had no choice but to immediately adapt and improvise… or die.
Boats and ships can’t navigate a frozen river? No worries! Wagons can use it as a highway! People can walk (or skate) over the ice and to make it easier, merchants can set up tents and swiftly constructed wooden shacks to sell their wares! Better yet, draw crowds by adding games and special treats! Call it a FROST FAIR because people love fairs! When life is tougher than normal, laughter and fun is a great way to stay warm and positive!
THE FIRST FROST FAIR OF 1608
Temperatures dropped precipitously in December 1607 and by January 1608 the Thames was frozen solid. It would stay that way for six weeks.
Edmund Howes wrote in 1611—
“…from Sunday, the tenth of January, untill the fifteenth of the same, the frost grew so extreme, as the ice became firme, and removed not, and then all sorts of men, women, and children, went boldly upon the ice in most parts; some shot at prickes, others bowled and danced, with other variable pastimes; by reason of which concourse of people were many that set up boothes and standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoemakers, and a barber’s tent, etc. In these tents were fires… Unlicensed gambling, drinking & dancing were held at the fairs, along with stalls selling food & drink, skittle alleys & fairground rides.”
An exchange of letters between Sir Dudley Carleton and his friend John Chamberlain in the winter of 1607-8 makes frequent reference to the hard weather. Carleton, who was in the countryside, asked Chamberlain, who was in London, “…if it be true (as was told us this day) that the Thames is frozen over to make up the number of miracles of our own kings reigne, then let the world slide…“
“Above Westminster the Thames is quite frozen over and the Archbishop came from Lambeth on Twelfth Day over the ice to the court. Many fantasticall experiments are dayly put in practise as certain youths burnt a gallon of wine upon the ice and made all the passengers partakers.”
Below is an extremely rare pamphlet printed for the occasion. It was published and possibly authored by Thomas Dekker, the famous Elizabethan pamphleteer, and titled: “The great frost. Cold doings in London, except it be at the Lotterie. With Newes out of the Country. A familiar talk Betwene a Country-man and a citizen touching this terrible frost and the great Lotterie, and the effects of them.”
The text of the pamphlet is written as a conversation between two men, one a citizen of London and the other a country gentleman. They primarily discuss the events surrounding the Frost Fair, rather than the Fair itself. In depth they relate the differences in how they are coping with the cold, the Londoner stating, “Strangers may guess at our harms: yet none can give the full number of them but we that are the inhabitants. For the City by this means is cut off from all commerce.”
The text illustrates that the hindrance to commerce was a significant source of anxiety for both city dwellers and those living in the country. Along with restricting trade, the freezing temperatures hindered food transportation and crop production. When the citizen discusses London, he states, “For you of the country being not able to travel to the City with victuals, the price of victail must of necessity be enhanced; and victail itself brought into a scarcity.”
In other words, food was not being delivered to the city folk, who were indeed suffering as a result. On the other hand, according to the countryman, the severe cold was wrecking havoc on livestock, stored crops, and the capacity to produce crops. Indeed, history reveals that the fallout to the severe weather would be felt for years to come.
Unfortunately, the 29-page pamphlet has not been digitalized for Google books or Project Gutenberg, and the most I could find are quotes from the text and discussions about it. While it seems primarily to have tackled the economic and political aspects of the weather event, the two unnamed and fictional men also talk about the Frost Fair. The Londoner describes his unusual experience of “being shaved in the middle of the frozen Thames: an experience to be remembered in the afterlife!”
The text also notes that “London merchants took to the ice, selling a variety of items: beer, ale, fruit, and shoes… The ice also became a host to a number of other diverting activities, including archery, football, and shooting.” The novelty was indeed intriguing, according to Thomas Dekker, who estimated in The Great Frost that as many as three quarters of the city walked the ice and attended this event.
Compared to subsequent Frost Fairs, the one in 1608 was impromptu and relatively low key. There is minimal information recorded and if drawings or paintings were done, they did not survive. The pamphlet cover page above is one of the rare ones.
English poet John Taylor colorfully described the Thames as the “conglutinated frozen stream” upon which tradespeople set up stalls to cater to the thronging crowds. A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink. Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services, perhaps Dekker being the “Londoner” who enjoyed the heavenly shave!
Frost Fair participants could buy drinks and food, including slices of freshly roasted pork and more cooked over coal fires kindled in the middle of the ice. There were fruit sellers, tents selling every conceivable ware, and even pubs. There were football pitches, bowling matches, skittles, boxing matches, and more.
The above vague references are all we know of this first declared Frost Fair. The dearth of documentation clearly does not translate to Londoners returning to business as usual after the thaw and forgetting about the event. The Frost Fair of 1608-09 was not only a fun distraction during a difficult period, it prevented a crisis from becoming an utter catastrophe. Perhaps they knew the history of past freezes, even if not written down for posterity, and assumed it would inevitably happen again.
They were correct, and indeed they were prepared.
Come back on Wednesday for the other Frost Fairs on the Thames during the 17th century.