It is a truth universally acknowledged that a body of water in possession of
a good layer of ice, must be in want of a pair of skates.
Welcome to the Frost Fair of 1814!
Donkeys on ice and much, much more at the 1814 Frost Fair.
(Credit: Print, Anonymous, 1814. The British Museum, © The Trustees of the British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1931-1114-389)
The cold weather corollary to making hay while the sun shines must surely be to make merry while the river freezes, for in 1814, London spilled out onto the frozen Thames in an impromptu and boisterous four-day winter festival called a ‘Frost Fair.’
Mr. Thaw exhorts Mr. Frost to quit the Thames, Feb. 5, 1814.
(Credit: Printed keepsake, 5 February 1814. The Museum of London, © Museum of London.
The ice began to set in late December 1813 and by late January 1814, curious crowds were turning out to see the novelty of the frozen river. Such a thing happened rarely! Watermen, unable to collect fees to ferry passengers to opposite banks, placed notices at the ends of the roads abutting the Thames touting safe footpaths across the river and charged people and tradesmen for access to the ice. As they had only four times before, and not since 1789, tradesmen emerged out onto the frozen surface between Blackfriars and London Bridges to set up stalls and tents. Vendors sold beef, gingerbread, and hot apples. One could knock back a glass of Old Tom gin, described in records as "particularly ardent," or some spice-infused beer – "very spiky" – called Mum. Of course there was tea. Dancing, skating, skittles, and nine-pin bowling sprang up (These amusements were perhaps refined compared to the 1684 Frost Fair’s marquee events: bullbaiting, throwing rocks at chickens, and getting a shave.) Engravings depict a messy free-for-all of carnival rides, pratfalls, and donkey racing under ice-locked ships looming in the background. The Sussex Advertiser reported on “drinking tents filled with females and their companions,” as well as gambling, in which “honesty was out of the question.” Printers hauled their presses to the ice to print keepsakes, and all manner of books, toys, and trinkets were sold with special labels designating that the article was bought on the frozen Thames. Droll signs cropped up, such as “This shop to let – It is charged with no land-tax or even ground-rent.” There were reports that an elephant was led across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge. One purveyor roasted a sheep over a coal fire and charged sixpence for the privilege of watching. By February 4th thousands had visited the fair. The following day, the ice began to break up.
Still tasty after all these years?
A morsel of gingerbread from the Frost Fair with its souvenir wrapper.
(Credit: The Museum of London, © Museum of London.
One notable souvenir was a pamphlet titled: “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.” This exceedingly thorough 124-page booklet was itself printed on the ice. Frostiana may have tested a reader’s fortitude, though – a reviewer of the day noted that the author “… give[s] us a history of snow, ice, and cold, northern winters, and skaiting [sic]; and we must do him the justice to say, that he has exhausted his subject…He has left nothing unsaid.”
Despite the reviewer’s estimation, something was left unsaid in Frostiana: why the Thames froze in the first place, in a climate not generally known for icy waterways. In 1814, the average temperature in January was -2.9°C / 27°F (compared to 1.4°C / 35° F in 2010). The Frost Fairs took place during what scientists call “the Little Ice Age,” a period from about the 1350 to 1900 or so marked by at least three particularly cold intervals. Scientists identify several potential contributing factors causing the Little Ice Age, among them minute changes in the Earth’s tilt, solar activity, and volcanic activity. Another factor causing the Thames to freeze was the design of the old London Bridge. Its almost 20 arches and footings would have encouraged freezing by slowing the water’s flow and decreasing sea water encroachment upriver past the bridge. The footings sometimes trapped floating ice chunks and debris, promoting the accumulation of ice on the river. Still water freezes more easily and lowering water’s salt content raises the freezing point. With the continued freezing weather, the ice grew thick enough to support unbridled partying for days.
The winter of 1814 wasn’t all a picnic on the ice, though. The freezing weather posed challenges for London tradesmen as ports became unusable. Opening stalls at the Frost Fair may have helped defray losses. (Side note: some historians and anthropologists go so far as to link the Little Ice Age’s long-term climate effects to famines, bread riots, the rise of despotic governments, oppression of the peasant classes, and witch-hunting.) The ice did thousands of pounds in damages to houses, shops, boats and bridges. The fair could be a perilous place. Frostiana describes the accidental ‘semi-bathing’ of three “prim young Quakeresses” who then had to make their way home from the fair amidst catcalls. Two young men were carried downriver on an ice floe, tipped into the water, and never again seen. Inevitably, several people drowned when the ice supporting the Frost Fair softened.
The 1814 Frost Fair would be the last. Scientists believe conditions for another Frost Fair are unlikely for now, given the general warming trends of the 20th century and the redesigned London Bridge’s architecture, which, with its three large arches and fewer piers, offers far less opportunity for formation of ice on the river’s surface. Still, observers saw a man bicycling on a small frozen portion of the Thames during the unusually cold winter of 1962, so perhaps there is yet cause to stitch up a humongous muff or greatcoat in hopes of another Frost Fair … or at least a turn about the ice and snow.
She's hardly dressed warmly enough!
(Credit: Skating Lovers (1800), after Adam Buck (detail);
The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum
Despite living out of state, Anna Miller has been an RSV member since 2014 so will genteelly refrain from goading other members with comments about how they are completely unfamiliar with the true definition of "cold." Instead, she takes this opportunity (as she "enjoys" temperatures of 10ºF) to applaud the wisdom and good taste of using a giant Regency fur muff in the winter months.
“Article 15. Frostiana...” The British Critic, and Quarterly Theologic Review, vol. 1, 1814, p. 221.
Davis, G. Frostiana...(&c.). Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, Paternoster Row, 1814.
de Castella, Tom. “Frost Fair: When an Elephant Walked on the Frozen River Thames.” BBC News Magazine, BBC, 28 Jan. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25862141.
“Frost Fair on the Thames.” Sussex Advertiser, 5 Feb. 1814.
Meier, Allison. “The Frost Fair: When the River Thames Froze Over Into London's Most Debaucherous Party.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 7 Feb. 2014, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/frost-fair-of-london.
Selli, F. “All the Fun of the Frost Fair: Why Did the Thames Freeze?” Museum of London, Museum of London, 19 Nov. 2019, www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/frost-fairs.
Shaull-Thompson, Remi. “‘Frost Fairs," the Little Ice Age and Climate Change.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 7 May 2019, blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/frost-fairs-the-little-ice-age-and-climate-change/.
Stavely-Wadham, Rose. “'The Thames Is Now Both a Fair and Market Too' – Discovering the Frost Fair of 1814.” The British Newspaper Archive, 21 January 2021, blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2019/01/21/discovering-the-frost-fair-of-1814/.
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