The Last Great Frost Fair on the Thames in 1814
The 19th century would see the end of Frost Fairs and the Thames freezing solid. Alas, this also means today’s blog is the last in my four-part series on the subject. Before reading on, be sure to check out the previous posts to understand the full context, links below in order:
THE END OF A FROZEN RIVER THAMES
The fourth Frost Fair in the 18th century ended by February in 1789, and it would be twenty-five years before the next one was held in 1814. This does not mean, however, that those intervening winters were mild. The severity of the “little ice age” period which had effected all of the Northern Hemisphere for hundreds of years was beginning to wane, but Jack Frost was not quite ready to relinquish his grip.
According to reports, the River Tyne running through Northumberland froze twenty inches thick in 1795, and the Thames froze as well, although the extent is not recorded. It must not have been to a degree worthy of a Frost Fair, as it also must not have been in 1809 or 1811 when vague references to a frozen Thames are noted.
I uncovered no concrete evidence that Londoners weren’t anticipating future deep freezes, preparing at least mentally for the mixture of catastrophe and entertainment engendered with a severe winter. Nor would citizens of London, or England as a whole, have welcomed the summer of 1814 with the belief that the Frost Fair recently held was the last one. Perhaps if they had had an inkling, the Great Frost Fair of 1814 might have been even more extravagant. Go out with a massive bang!
Over the ten or so years following 1814, there are no records of a winter so intense as to even partially freeze the Thames, and in fact it would never happen again. Why?
Well, for one, the weather was on a warming trend, comparatively speaking. Nevertheless, there are several recorded severe frosts in England throughout the 19th century. In 1838, a cold snap lasted over a month with several rivers freezing solid across England. A strong frost in 1855 created a near economic depression, in London alone 10,000 dock and river workers out of work. Another bad winter was in 1860, and then again in 1879 when the cold was so extreme that Londoners anticipated the Thames freezing with a Frost Fair to be held. What the average person did not fully realize was that by 1879 this was no longer possible, no matter how cold it got.
As early as 1799, plans to build a new London Bridge were decided upon by the city managers. The Old London Bridge, built originally in 1176, had reached a state of structural decline no longer capable of being repaired. Nor was the narrow bridge sufficient for the needs of a fast growing city. Engineer John Rennie designed a four-pier and five-arch stone bridge, which was built under the direction of his son (also John Rennie) 100-feet upstream of the old bridge. Construction started in 1824 and was completed in 1831.
During those seven years, the businesses and church located on the old bridge relocated into London. Once the new London Bridge was opened, the Old Bridge was demolished, this done in 1831.
The wide arches of the new bridge improved the flow of the Thames and did not trap floes of ice. At the same general time, construction of embankments along the banks of the Thames narrowed and deepened the river, also improving the current flow. These changes upon the Thames would prevent the river ever again freezing over.
THE GREAT FROST FAIR OF 1813-14
The lead up to the final winter cold enough to freeze the Thames and host a Frost Fair began in December of 1813. George III had suffered a mental decline, the Prince of Wales reigned as Regent, the Earl of Liverpool was prime minister, and the Napoleonic wars continued. Of course Londoners were aware of these realities, yet their attention became captured when temperature began to sharply fall.
On December 26th, a dense fog worse than any citizen alive had ever seen rolled into London. People who had lived in London their whole lives could not find their way around the city, even with handheld lanterns. Coachmen dismounted from their horses and led them through the streets out of fear of colliding with something they might not be able to see from more than a few feet away.
“On the night of 27th the darkness was so dense that the Prince Regent, who desired to pay a visit to the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield House, was obliged to return back to Carlton House, not, however, until one of his outriders had fallen into a ditch on the side of Kentish Town.”
The fog lasted until January 3 — thinning but not disappearing completely — only to be immediately replaced with a heavy snow storm that hit all of southern England. A writer of the time said, “There is nothing in the memory of man to equal these falls.” The snow continued incessantly for forty-eight hours, accumulating atop a ground soaked from four weeks of condensation that froze fast. The mass of snow and icy water inhibited carriages or pedestrians from accessing the streets. Nearly the whole of the time a bitterly cold wind blew from the north and north-east.
Temperatures hit well-below freezing every single night from the 27th of December to the 7th of February in 1814. The Thames quickly started to freeze into huge floating masses of ice, hinting of what was to come, however the severe weather and dangerous streets kept Londoners inside for several weeks. Not until late in January did venturous people emerge to test the frozen Thames, first singly and then in small groups. Gradually the groups increased in number, hardy souls gingerly walking across the surface while hundreds of expectant Londoners watched from the safety of London and Blackfriars Bridges. The final, absolute proof for the public was when an elephant was led safely across the frozen river just upstream of London Bridge!
“The Thames between Blackfriars and London Bridges continued to present the novel scene of persons moving on the ice in all directions and in greatly increased numbers. The ice, however, from its roughness and inequalities is totally unfit for amusement, although we observed several booths erected upon it for the sale of small wares, but the publicans and spirit-dealers were most in the receipt of custom. The whole of the river opposite Queenhithe was frozen over, and in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon, notwithstanding which, crowds of foot passengers crossed backwards and forwards throughout the whole of the day.” ~The Annual Register
Confident of the solid, immoveable mass of ice, on February 1, 1814, out-of-work watermen once again took charge of the Thames. They placing notices at the end of all the streets leading to the city side of the river that announced safe footway over the surface, charged a fee for entry, and served as policemen by keeping order on the ice.
In the meantime, merchants and watermen had been preparing. Stalls were built, newspapers were advertising for the fun to come, printers and artisans were designing souvenirs, games and entertainments were planned, and so on.
February 2nd, a Wednesday, marked the official opening day of the Great Frost Fair. It would last for only five days, and as noted previously, no one thought it would be the last, but after twenty-five years, Londoners were ready for an extravaganza!
Merchants erected essentially a whole new city built of tents or hastily constructed wooden structures. These were ornamented with colorful streamers, flags, and signs advertising the luxuries being sold. The winding streets were lined with restaurants, taverns, every shop type imaginable, play stages (many using the frozen-in-place boats), and printing presses. Rent was free since obviously no one owned the location they built upon. Game areas were designated and horse-drawn sleighs traveled up and down the slick surface. Thousands of Londoners flocked onto the ice, the numbers unprecedented.
“The grand mall or walk extended from Blackfriars to London Bridge. This was named the city road, and was lined on each side by persons of all descriptions. Eight or ten printing-presses were erected, and numerous pieces commemorative of the ‘great frost’ were printed on the ice.” ~The Annual Register
One exceptional publication was a 124-page book by George Davis with the ridiculous title: “Frostiana: a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State; with an Account of the Late Severe Frost; and the Wonderful Effects of Frost, Snow, Ice, and Cold, in England and in Different Parts of the World; Interspersed with Various Amusing Anecdotes. To Which is Added, the Art of Skating.”
An enterprising printer, Davis set up a stall on the ice, typeset and printing the entire book on the spot. The full title gives a hint of what was inside, or as one reviewer from the day noted of the author: “… give[s] us a history of snow, ice, and cold, northern winters, and skaiting; and we must do him the justice to say, that he has exhausted his subject… He has left nothing unsaid.”
Indeed, the ice was so thick that for the first time in the history of Frost Fairs, whole printing presses were hauled onto the ice. As had become a tradition, visitors were determined to obtain a printed ticket souvenir. Unfortunately, the crowds were so massive and the demand so high that personalizing tickets printed with a customer’s name wasn’t always possible. Instead, the tickets had witty poems and anecdotes alongside the date and inevitable “printed on the ice” clarification.
Souvenirs of all types were a much bigger aspect of this Frost Fair than any of the previous ones. By far the most unusual item to have survived is a piece of gingerbread. Commemorative cakes and other sweets were baked on the ice, gingerbread being a special winter treat. I seriously doubt the bakers or consumers anticipated the savory treats not being eaten immediately, let alone kept for over 200 years! On display in the Museum of London Docklands, “the only surviving piece of gingerbread” includes its original wrapper and reportedly is “a little hard, but still smells of ginger and spice.”
“Every day brought a fresh accession of ‘pedlars to sell their wares’ and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost. Books and toys labelled ‘bought on the Thames’ were seen in profusion. The waterman profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of 2d. or 3d. before he was admitted to the Frost Fair. Some douceur also was expected on your return. These men were said to have taken £6 each in the course of a day.” ~The Everyday Book, by William Hone
Also unique to the 1814 Frost Fair were several unusual, first-time-ever activities and edibles. The above gingerbread was one example, as was the elephant walking over the ice, which was as much to test the solidity as it was to entertain the onlookers. Donkeys for rides and races were also a new addition, along with the typical animal-centric games such as “throwing at cocks,” fox hunting, and bull-baiting.
Not all animals were for entertainment. Among the more curious was the ceremony of roasting a small sheep over a coal fire, although not on a spit but by being placed in a large iron pan. For a view of this extraordinary spectacle, sixpence was willingly paid. When cooked, the delicate meat termed “Lapland mutton” was sold for a shilling a slice.
Of the many alcoholic beverages served — beer, gin, wine — a highly intoxicating drink called “Purl” was the special Frost Fair concoction. Purl was a mix of gin and wormwood wine, similar to vermouth, drunk hot, and with the promise that “you’d get absolutely wrecked on it.” Other unique drinks included a particularly strong gin called “Old Tom” which records described as “incredibly ardent,” and a “very spiky” beer infused with spices to create a winter ale dubbed “Mum.”
“At every glance, there was a novelty of some kind or other. Gaming was carried on in all its branches. Many of the itinerant admirers of the profits gained by E O Tables, Rouge et Noir, Te-totum, wheel of fortune, the garter, were industrious in their avocations, and some of their customers left the lures without a penny to pay the passage over a plank to the shore. Skittles was played by several parties, and the drinking tents were filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat round large fires, drinking rum, grog, and other spirits. Tea, coffee, and eatables, were provided in abundance, and passengers were invited to eat by way of recording their visit. Several tradesmen, who at other times were deemed respectable, attended with their wares, and sold books, toys, and trinkets of almost every description.”
Under the Southwark Bridge, Richard Kindersley created a series of engravings on slate remembering the fair with this inscription:
Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num’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.
“The River Thames all last week was a perfect Dutch Fair. Kitchen fires and furnaces were blazing and boiling in every direction, and animals, from a sheep a rabbit, and a goose to a lark, were turning on numberless spits. …in addition to the arrangements which were prepared the watermen, a complete dancing room has been established in a barge, which is firmly frozen at a considerable distance from the shore.” ~The Chester Chronicle on February 11, 1814
As early as the morning of February 5th, the fourth day of the Frost Fair, a slight shift in the wind with a lightly falling snow hinted that the fun would not last much longer. Undeterred, Londoners by the thousands ventured onto the ice. The life and bustle of the Fair continued throughout the day and into the evening, ebbing gradually when it began to drizzle. Sensing the impending dissolution, a printer hastily reset the press with this message—
To Madam Tabitha Thaw.
Dear dissolving dame,
FATHER FROST and SISTER SNOW have Boneyed my borders, formed an idol of ice upon my bosom, and all the LADS OF LONDON come to make merry : now as you love mischief, treat the multitude with a few CRACKS by a sudden visit, and obtain the prayers of the poor upon both banks.
Given at my own press,
the 5th Feb. 1814.
Later that night, the ice began to crack. Pieces shifted and floated, causing some damage and dismay especially for the printers and merchants with costly machinery and products. The change was abrupt, the tide flowing with “great rapidity at London Bridge” by 2 A.M. There are no recorded deaths, but there were several close calls and injuries as people scrambled to vacate the area with their goods.
“On this day [Sunday, February 6, 1814] the Thames towards high tide (about 3 p.m.) presented a miniature idea of the Frozen Ocean; the masses of ice floating along, added to the great height of the water, formed a striking scene for contemplation. Thousands of disappointed persons thronged the banks; and many a ‘prentice, and servant maid ‘sighed unutterable things’ at the sudden and unlooked for destruction of FROST FAIR.” ~The Everyday Book, by William Hone
The February 7 notation: “Large masses of ice are yet floating, and numerous lighters, broken from their moorings, are seen in different parts of the river, many of them complete wrecks. The damage done to the craft and barges is supposed to be very great. From London Bridge to Westminster, twenty thousand pounds will scarcely make good the losses that have been sustained.” ~The Everyday Book, by William Hone
Thus the Great Frost Fair of 1814 ended, the last of its kind ever to be.
And thus ends this series of blog posts!
I hope everyone enjoyed this slice of England history.
Please share your thoughts below.