As London undergoes the big chill with much of the rest of the country, we thought we’d take a quick look at the frost fairs which were once held on top of the frozen River Thames.
While records reveal the Thames froze over as far back as the city’s Roman era, the first recorded ‘frost fair’ dates from the mid-16th century (Queen Elizabeth I is said to have attended one in 1564) while the last was held in 1814.
While the lower temperatures played a role in allowing the ice to get thick enough to hold frost fairs on top (the period between the 14th and 19th centuries is known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ in northern Europe), so too did the fact that the Thames was broader and shallower than it is now, not to mention the narrow arches of Old London Bridge (it was demolished in 1831 – for more on this, see our earlier entry) which slowed the waters of the Thames.
The fairs were set up in a range of locations along the river. Descriptions of them talk of a range of activities being carried out on the river’s frozen surface – yes, the use of sleds and skates but also things like bear-baiting, coach, horse racing, dancing and puppet plays as well as the setting up of booths or stalls from which traders sold food, souvenirs, and, importantly, drink.
One of the longest of the fairs – recorded by diarist John Evelyn – was held over the winter of 1683-84 and located between Temple and Southwark. It featured streets of stalls with different traders grouped in different areas. King Charles II himself was a visitor.
During the last and biggest frost fair, held on the river near Blackfriars Bridge, a street known as ‘City Road’ ran down the middle of the Thames and donkeys gave people rides.
There is a frieze depicting a ‘frost fair’ underneath the southern end of Southwark Bridge.
PICTURE: Detail of an image of the Frost Fair of 1684 with London Bridge in the background. Source: Wikipedia.