Given the heavy rain, winds and storms suffered by much of the UK this year, it is unlikely that anyone is feeling thankful that winter temperatures have – so far – been relatively mild.
Spare a thought, then, for those who lived through British winters throughout the 15th to 19th Centuries. This era is now known as ‘The Little Ice Age’ due to the severity of the cold across Europe and North America in particular.
During this period, canals and waterways across the country would routinely freeze, and on at least 24 occasions between 1408 and 1814, even the River Thames in the heart of London froze over. But rather than allow the cold to crush their spirits, these occasions gave Londoners an excuse to enjoy themselves.
The first notable ‘Frost Fair’ on the Thames was recorded in 1608, though activities are known to have happened on the frozen river prior to that. Henry VIII is said to have travelled to Greenwich by sledge, and there are reports of primitive games of football being played by children on the ice.
Perhaps the longest-lasting Frost Fair took place in the winter of 1683-84. The Thames remained frozen from December to February – over nine weeks – and an unofficial ‘road’ was created between Temple Steps and Southwark to create another traffic crossing.
Within days, a number of tented booths and makeshift stalls were set up on either side of ‘Temple Street’ by enterprising tradesmen, in order to take advantage of the passing trade. According to contemporary documents, items sold included “cloaths, plate, earthenware, meat, drink, brandy, tobacco, and a hundred sorts of commodities”.
Before long, sideshows and entertainments grew up alongside the traders’ stalls. Diarist John Evelyn noted “sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water.”
Printing presses were brought onto the ice so that souvenir postcards and documents showing commemorative verses could be purchased. One card still exists that records the visit to the fair of King Charles II, his wife and his brother (the future James II) on January 31, 1684.
While providing some uplifting fun in the freezing weather, in which trees were seen to be “splitting as if lightning-struck”, it was also a wholly necessary way for those who relied on river trade for their livelihoods to make some much-needed income while boat traffic was suspended.
The 1683-84 fair created the template for future events, which continued throughout the 18th Century. The Annual Register for 1789 reveals that in January, the Thames was "completely frozen over and people walk to and fro across it with fairground booths erected on it, as well as puppet shows and roundabouts".
The last Thames Frost Fair - probably the biggest of all - took place in 1814 between Blackfriars and London Bridges. That winter was the fourth coldest recorded since 1660, and the ice on the river was so thick that an elephant was paraded across it at Blackfriars.
It began on February 1. A caricature by George Cruikshank paints a comical picture of the scene, as figures drink, play skittles and slip on the ice in front of a tent proclaiming "Gin and Gingerbread Sold here wholesale".
The air of patriotism of the time - during the Napoleonic wars - can be seen in this and other contemporary images, which feature the union flag, injured war veterans and tents labelled 'Nelson' and ‘Shannon’ – the latter after a notable frigate of the British Navy.
Once again mementoes created by printers and engravers were in high demand, and alongside the food and drink booths there were sideshows, places to dance, and even a makeshift casino.
The 1814 Frost Fair was a relatively short one, lasting just five days until February 5, when many stallholders and visitors were forced to scramble for safety from the fast-thawing ice. Some tents and equipment fell into the river and, according to reports, a few lives were lost.
The tidal part of the Thames in central London has not frozen over in the subsequent 200 years. Reasons for this include the demolition of the old London Bridge (which had 19 arches, between which rubbish and mud would build up, making it easier for freezing to occur); the embanking of both sides of the river (making the river narrower and therefore faster-flowing); and a slight rise in mean annual temperatures.
Short of the predictions of some climate scientists coming true and the Earth sliding toward another ice age, it seems unlikely that Londoners will enjoy the pleasures of a Thames Frost Fair again; perhaps they should be thankful for small mercies…