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.
• An examination of the historical use of visual data has opened at the British Library. Beautiful Science, which is running in The Folio Society Gallery, features the work of scientists and statisticians down the ages and focuses on the key themes of public health, weather and evolution. Among items on display are Robert Fludd’s Great Chain of Being (1617), Florence Nightingale’s seminal ‘rose diagram’ (1858) which illustrated that more Crimean War deaths were being caused by poor hospital conditions that battlefield wounds, and a contemporary moving infographic from NASA showing ocean currents (pictured). A programme of events is running with the exhibition which closes on 26th May. Entry is free. For more, see www.bl.uk/beautiful-science. PICTURE: NASA’s Perpetual Ocean © NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
• Comic Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at the London apartment he lived in during the hey day of the ‘Carry On’ series of films during the 1960s. Williams lived in flat 62 on the top floor of Farley Court, located between Madame Tussauds and Baker Street station, between 1963 and 1970 during which he starred in such films as Carry on Cleo and Carry on up the Khyber and also appeared in radio comedy programmes such as Round the Horne and Just a Minute. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/.
• Two exhibitions celebrating London’s Frost Fairs are underway at the Museum of London and its Docklands sister. Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1814 at the Museum of London in the City and Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1684 at the Museum of London Docklands both feature objects, paintings, keepsakes, engravings and etchings from the museum’s collection. Highlights at the Museum of London exhibition include the only surviving piece of gingerbread from the 1814 fair, the last fair of its kind, as well as etchings by satirical artist George Cruikshank and a print by George Thompson while among the items on display at the Docklands museum are two paintings by a Dutch artist Abraham Hondius (c. 1625-91). Both exhibitions are free and both run until 30th March. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.