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William Wilberforce[edit]

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River Thames frost fairs[edit]

Rework River Thames frost fairs

The Frozen Thames, 1677

In many periods when the British climate was more severe than at present the River Thames at London sometimes froze over in winter. A number of fairs, known as the River Thames frost fairs were held on the river. Some of these occurred during winters which were much harder than has been experienced in recent centuries.

In the so-called 'Great Frost' of 168384, one of the four or five coldest winters over the British Isles and large parts of the European mainland, the Thames was completely frozen for about two months and the ice was reported to be 11 inches (approx. 28 cm) thick at London. Sea ice was reported along the coasts of S.E. England and many harbours could not be used due to ice: according to some sources, the sea froze so that ice formed for a time between Dover and Calais, with the two sides 'joined together'. Severe problems for shipping accessing such ports on either side of the North Sea. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to a depth of 27 inches and in Somerset to more than 4 feet.

In history[edit]

One of the earliest accounts of the Thames freezing over comes from A.D. 250 when it was frozen hard for nine weeks. In A.D. 923 the river was open to wheeled traffic for trade and the transport of goods for thirteen weeks; again in 1410, for fourteen. The period from the mid-14th century to the 19th century in Europe has been called the "Little Ice Age" on account of the severity of the climate at the time, especially the severe winters; when the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough, Londoners held a festival on the river. However, the colder climate wasn't the only condition which allowed the major river to freeze over in a city where, in the 21st century, small ponds rarely retain a thin covering of ice all through a winter's day; the Thames was broader and shallower then, as it was yet to be embanked, which meant that it flowed more slowly. Also old London Bridge, which carried a row of houses on either side of its roadway was supported on many closely spaced piers, which acted something like a dam.[1]

The first Frost fairs[edit]

The Frost Fair of 1683

The first recorded frost fair didn't happen until 1608, but the Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century. Henry VIII is said to have traveled all the way from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river during the winter of 1536 and Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter of 1564.

One of most celebrated frost fairs occurred in the winter of 168384. John Evelyn described it thus:

"Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with ice skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water." [2]

A printer by the name of Croom sold souvenir cards written with the customer’s name, the date, and the fact that the card was printed on the Thames for six pence, and was said to be making five pounds a day from the enterprise, which was at least ten times a labourer's weekly wage. Even the King bought one; the cold weather was not only a cause for merriment however, as Evelyn went on to explain:

"The fowls, fish and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive...London, by reason for the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal... that one could hardly breath." [3]

The following extract is an account of the severe frost in the year 1688 by an eye-witness: [4]

"On the 20th of December, 1688, a very violent frost began, which lasted to the 6th of February, in so great extremity, that the pools were frozen 18 inches thick at least, and the Thames was so frozen that a great street from the Temple to Southwark was built with shops, and all manner of things sold. Hackney coaches plied there as in the streets. There were also bull-baiting, and a great many shows and tricks to be seen; this day the frost broke up. In the morning I saw a coach and six horses driven from Whitehall almost to the bridge (London Bridge) yet by three o'clock that day, February the 6th, next to Southwark the ice was gone, so as boats did row to and fro, and the next day all the frost was gone. On Candlemas Day I went to Croydon market, and led my horse over the ice to the Horseferry from Westminster to Lambeth; as I came back I led him from Lambeth upon the middle of the Thames to Whitefriars' stairs, and so led him up by them, and this day an ox was roasted whole, over against Whitehall. King Charles [5] and the Queen ate part of it." N.B. In 1740, a palace of ice was built by the Empress Anne of Russia, on the banks of the Neva, 52 feet long, which, when illuminated, had a surprising effect."

However the Thames frost fairs were often brief, scarcely commenced before the weather lifted and the people had to retreat from the melting ice. Rapid thaws sometimes caused loss of life and property. In January 1789, melting ice dragged at a ship anchored to a riverside public house, pulling the building down and crushing five people to death.

The Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell

Walking from Fulham to Putney[edit]

Soon after Beilby Porteus, newly-appointed Bishop of London, took up residence at Fulham Palace in 1788 he recorded that the year was remarkable "for a very severe frost the latter end of the year, by which the Thames was so completely frozen over, that Mrs. Porteus and myself walked over it from Fulham to Putney." [6]

The last Frost fair[edit]

The frost fair of 1814 began on 1 February, and lasted just four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge, and a printer named Davis published a book entitled Frostiana; Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State; this was to be the last frost fair. The climate was growing milder; also old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, both of which made the river less liable to freezing.

Years when the Thames froze[edit]

Between 1400 and the 19th century there were a total of 24 recorded winters in which the Thames froze over at London (or 25 if one includes "more or less frozen over" years, which are shown in parentheses): 1408, 1435, 1506, 1514, 1537, 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, 1655, 1663, 1666, 1677, 1684, 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, (1768), 1776, (1785), 1788, 1795 and 1814.[7]


  • Britton, John and Edward with Brayley, Wedlake. Beauties of England and Wales. Vol. X, p83. (London: Vernor and Hood, 8vo.,1801–16)
  • Currie, Ian. Frost, Freezes and Fairs: Chronicles of the Frozen Thames and Harsh Winters in Britain from 1000 A.D. (Coulsdon, Surrey: Frosted Earth, 1996) ISBN 9780951671085
  • Davis, George. Frostiana; Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. (London: printed and published on the Ice on the River Thames, 12mo., February 5, 1814)
  • Hudson, Roger. London: Portrait of a City. (London: The Folio Society, 8vo., 1988)
  • Lamb, H.H. Climate: Present, past and future. Vol. II. Tables App. V. 6 and 7, pp.568–70, (London: Methuen, 1977)
  • Porteus, Rt. Rev. Dr. Beilby. A Brief Description of Three Favourite Country Residences. (London: privately printed in a limited edition, 1806)
  • Reed, Nicholas. Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames. Folkestone: Lilburne Press, 2002. ISBN 9781901167092


  1. ^ Historical weather events, accessed April 3, 2008
  2. ^ Hudson, quoting Evelyn
  3. ^ Hudson, quoting Evelyn
  4. ^ Britton and Brayley, Vol. X. p.83
  5. ^ *It could not have been Charles II, who died in 1685, so the date is wrong. It is probable from the context that the author is referring to 1682–3.
  6. ^ Porteus, p.27
  7. ^ Lamb, 1977.

External links[edit]

  • Southwark history
  • "Frost Fair Mug". Glass. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
  • Print of The Frost Fair, 1684: "Great Britains Wonder"
  • The Frozen Thames - a book of forty historical fiction vignettes by Helen Humphreys
  • Historical Weather Events, 1650–1699