Held during particularly cold winters when the River Thames froze over, ‘frost fairs’ had been part of London’s history, from the Middle Ages up until the last one was held in February 1814, two hundred years ago last month.
The five day revelry started on 1st February and took place on a stretch of the river between Blackfriars and London Bridge (it was the medieval London Bridge in particular – with its 19 arches and wide piers – which helped to slow the river enough to freeze, something unlikely to happen again with the current bridge).
People began to venture out onto the ice and an impromptu fair started taking shape as tents and booths were established selling all manner of food including roast ox, drinks including alcohol like gin as well as hot chocolate, tea and coffee, and souvenirs to take advantage of the passing traffic (a piece of gingerbread from the fair is a star attraction at the Museum of London’s current exhibition on the fair – pictured right). Some of the tents were known by names (similar to a pub sign), such as the Moscow and the Wellington.
Other attractions recorded include children’s play equipment, a gambling den, and printing presses which produced keepsakes to mark the occasion. There were even reports of sightings of an elephant crossing the river.
Several people apparently died at the fair having sunk beneath the ice by the time the snow turned to rain and the ice began to break up. An engraving of the frost fairs by Richard Kindersley can be found on a pedestrian walkway underneath the Southwark end of Southwark Bridge.
The dates for Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1814 at the Museum of London have been extended until 21st April (there is an accompanying exhibition, Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1684 running concurrently at the Museum of London Docklands). Admission is free. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
MAIN PICTURE: A view of the river Thames, 1814, George Thompson © Museum of London. This print shows the 1814 Frost Fair from the south bank of the Thames, with St Paul’s in the background.