Regency Bicentennial:   The Last Frost Fair — Part One

Tomorrow marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the last Frost Fair to be held on the River Thames in London. The lower section of the Thames had frozen solid many times since the Middle Ages, and there are records that show it froze over at least as far back as early Roman times. By the seventeenth century, Londoners were venturing out onto the ice of the frozen river to enjoy impromptu events which came to be known as Frost Fairs. But major climatic changes as well as alterations in the structures over and along the Thames in the years after the Regency would so profoundly effect the flow of the river that there would never be another Frost Fair after February of 1814.

The last, and quite probably the greatest, of the Frost Fairs on the River Thames …

The climactic condition that gave rise to the exceptionally cold winters which caused the Thames to freeze is known as the Little Ice Age. Though scholars disagree about the precise span of dates and the causes of the Little Ice Age, there is no doubt that during this period, both the British Isles and much of Northern Europe were subject to significantly heavier snowfalls than had been seen to that time. Along with this heavier snowfall came long periods of extreme cold. Cold so intense that ponds froze right down to the bottom, and even broad and powerful rivers could freeze to depths of as much as two or three feet. And these very cold spells could last for extended periods.

The structure straddling the Thames which was most responsible for the freezing of the river in the years before 1831 was the old London Bridge. This so-called "old" London Bridge was constructed between 1176 and 1209, but it was only one in a long line of bridges which had been built on that spot which dated back to Roman times. What few people realize today is that this bridge was designed less to afford a crossing of the river than it was as a defense barrier to protect the area known today as the City of London. Even before the Middle Ages, Vikings and other invaders had used the Thames as a broad avenue which gave them easy access to the heart of London. This medieval bridge was built of stone, set low, with multiple, narrow arches though which the water flowed. Thus neither large ships nor those with tall masts would be able to sail any further up the Thames than this massive bridge. The rent paid on homes, shops and even the church which were built on the bridge helped to maintain it. The resulting narrow passageway over the Thames also helped to protect the city from invaders by restricting the flow of traffic crossing the river.

In later repairs and improvements, the base of the London Bridge arches were broadened with defensive starlings which further constricted the flow of the river. Since the Thames is a tidal river, the flow under the London Bridge was not one way. The flow was east, or down river, then the tide was going out, while the river flowed to the west, up river, when the tide was coming in. Either way, long before the Regency, the flow backed up at the London Bridge due to the many arches with the wide starlings at their base. The level of the river could rise as much as a couple of feet on the side of the bridge against which the river was flowing. The water level on the other side of the bridge would be much lower, resulting in a series of small waterfalls, which were usually higher when the tide was going out. It was at this time that the most courageous and adventurous of the watermen who plied their wherries on the Thames would attempt to "shoot the bridge," their term for rowing their boats through one of the arches of London Bridge. Shooting the bridge was risky enough when the flow of the Thames was low, but it was extremely dangerous during a high tide.

In addition to creating "rapids" which provided sport for the Thames watermen, the constriction of the water flow at London Bridge also reduced the amount of salt water which was able to pass through the narrow bridge arches. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than does fresh water, so by reducing the salinity of the water up stream, the old London Bridge essentially predisposed that section of the river to freezing at higher temperatures. Once the river began to freeze up stream and ice floes broke loose and drifted down river on the current, the arches of London Bridge blocked those huge chunks of ice, eventually creating an ice dam. These ice dams cut off the incoming tide of salt water completely and because the Thames was a slow-flowing river at that time, as temperatures dropped during the coldest winters of the Little Ice Age, the entire surface of the river froze solid, to depths of one foot or more.

The Thames had frozen over several times after the construction of the Old London Bridge, but most Londoners did not venture out on to the ice in the early years. It is recorded that in 1536, Henry VIII was driven from Greenwich to London over the frozen Thames in his royal coach and four. Many people lined the banks of the Thames to watch their king pass by, but few went onto the ice themselves. During the winter of 1565, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, took a party out onto to the frozen Thames for archery practice, shooting at marks set up by her servants. So many of her party had become frightened of the sounds made by the ice, that by the fourth day, the queen went shooting with only her maid. In the early seventeenth century, whenever the Thames froze over, groups of young men used the ice as a football pitch. Later in the century, skaters glided over the frozen river, using the new iron skate blades recently introduced from Holland which replaced the old blades made of animal bone. However, when the Thames froze, the surface was not always smooth enough to skate, or even walk over. Sometimes, there were intermittent thaws which caused the ice to break into great chunks, then the current of the river below pushed the floes against one another. The pressure would push some floes up while others were pushed down and if the temperatures should drop again, the surface of the frozen river was so uneven it was more like the bottom of a worked-out stone quarry than a smooth, flat field.

The first true frost fair in London took place during the winter of 1608. The frozen river was disastrous for the watermen, whose former customers were simply walking across the ice to their destinations on the other side of the river. It seems to have been the watermen who initiated the idea of a frost fair. Desperate for any income they could get to replace their lost fares, many of the watermen anchored the hilts of their oars in the ice, covered the makeshift framework with a blanket and began selling anything which they thought might tempt those passing by on the ice. It was for this reason that Frost Fairs were also sometimes called Blanket Fairs. Initially, alcohol and hot drinks were most commonly on offer, but as more watermen and other tradesmen and merchants whose livelihoods were in danger from the severe cold set up their own makeshift shops on the ice, the range of goods on offer increased. Each time the river froze over after that, a Frost Fair would spring up on the ice as soon as the ice was deemed hard enough and thick enough to be safe. The thick ice, hard as a rock, was also a draw for many people who found the idea of the liquid, flowing Thames turned to a solid, static plate of ice nothing short of miraculous. They came to walk on the ice and enjoy what, for most of them, would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Frost Fair in the winter of 1683 – 1684, when the Thames froze solid and remained so for two months, was one of the longest and most elaborate of all the frost fairs. King Charles II himself attended that Frost Fair.

There were a number of ominous weather-related precursors to the Frost Fair of 1814. On Boxing Day, 26 December 1813, a great fog rolled in over London. But this was no ordinary fog, it was colder, thicker and heavier than any ever before seen. It blotted out the sun for days, darkening the city so that most people carried a lantern even in the daytime. Coachmen led their teams rather than drive them in order to minimize the risk of accidents and collisions. Even lifelong London residents who knew the city as well as they knew their own back garden could easily become lost in streets they often could not identify in the thick dense fog which blanketed the city. For more than eight days, all of metropolitan London and beyond lay nearly paralyzed under this cloak of extraordinary fog. The Birmingham Mail coach, en route from London to Uxbridge, took more than seven hours to make the twenty-mile journey. A journey which was usually accomplished in a couple of hours. Many people, including the Prince Regent himself, canceled or postponed road travel, and those that made the attempt, like the Birmingham Mail coach, found it took them as much as three or four times longer to reach their destination. The Regent had begun his journey to visit Hatfield House, the home of the Marquis of Salisbury, but his party only made it to Kentish Town before an accident caused one of the outriders to fall into a ditch. The Regent was frightened and unwilling to go any further. He ordered his entire entourage to turn around and take him back to Carlton House in London.

Within a couple of weeks after that cold, heavy fog finally lifted, the snow came. Heavy snow fell steadily for more than two days over much of southeastern England. The enormous piles of snow looked like great sand dunes in the fields and other open areas. In fact, people began piling the snow in order to slow any melting as a method of flood control. The Cambridge Mail Coach was covered with snow up to its roof and frozen in place for over eight hours. It was eventually pulled from its ice-bound prison by a team of fourteen heavy draught horses. Yet again, travel was nearly impossible and London was forced almost to a standstill. The skies finally cleared and the sun shone, but the snow did not melt because then came a heavy frost. But that frost was only a herald to many long days of deepening cold. Initially, huge ice floes were seen drifting downstream on the Thames, but within a few days the ice floes had frozen in place as the entire surface of the river above the Old London Bridge became solid; by the last day of January of 1814, to a depth of over eighteen inches. A few weeks after the cold spell began, on Tuesday, 1 February 1814, an elephant was led across the ice below the Old London Bridge to show that the ice was safe. Londoners knew the stage was set for a Frost Fair on the frozen river Thames.

According to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of a fair is: "A periodical gathering for the buying and selling of goods, at a place and time set out by charter, statute or ancient custom, and often incorporating sideshows, competitions, and other entertainments." By that definition, the Frost Fair of 1814 was indeed a fair. In accordance with the traditions of all the frost fairs which had come before, there were many stalls selling food and drink as well as a plethora of goods, including souvenirs by which to remember the event. There were also entertainments and competitions to engage and entertain the fair-goers. A kind of grand mall, dubbed "The City-road," ran from London Bridge all the way to Blackfriars Bridge. It was along this icy thoroughfare that the majority of the stalls and booths were set up. But fair-goers had to watch their step while at the Frost Fair. The surface of the frozen river was not completely smooth, there were a number of areas where large ice floes had been pushed up or down as they froze, making those areas treacherous to navigate. Nevertheless, many young men and boys enjoyed the challenge of conquering the rough icy heights. Another danger was that the entire surface of the river was not frozen solid. In some sections, there was a narrow stream meandering near the center where the ice was very thin, and thus dangerous to cross. Wide boards were laid down at intervals over this line of thin ice to serve as makeshift bridges. Most of these boards were placed by out-of-work watermen who then charged a penny to cross their bridge. Large placards chalked with announcements of "a safe footway" onto the river were posted at the top of most of the stairs down to the Thames. Watermen waited at the bottom of those stairs, the same from which they usually picked up their passengers and charged anyone coming down the stairs two or three pence to walk out onto the frozen river. There was a lower charge for the return, usually only a penny. Some of the watermen also placed planks at the base of the stairs so that their customers would have easy passage out onto the ice.

As with previous Frost Fairs, there was no lack of merchants selling a variety of alcoholic beverages and sales were brisk. Coffee, tea, chocolate, brandy, mulled cider or wines and other hot drinks were also available. At one stall, a sheep was roasted whole over a fire built right on the ice. Those who wished to watch the mutton roasting on the frozen river were charged a sixpence for the privilege. When the meat was ready to serve, it was dubbed "Lapland mutton" and sold for a shilling a slice. On another day, an ox was roasted whole out on the ice. Throughout the fair, beef, chickens, geese, larks and rabbits, were roasted in the kitchen or suttling booths set up on the ice. A wide range of other foods were available at the 1814 Frost Fair, in fact, all the foods typically available at any other English fair. Sellers of fruits and nuts usually did not set up stalls, but rather passed through the crowds hawking their wares, as did vendors of oysters and meat-pies. In addition, there were stalls selling minced meat pies, jugged hare, sausages, spiced buns, pancakes and black puddings. To appeal to the sweet-tooths of fair-goers, plum cakes, spiced apples, brandy balls and especially gingerbread, usually spread with treacle, were all available in stalls set up on the frozen river. A number of the gingerbread sellers sold their wares along with cups of gin, in most cases, an especially strong gin called "Old Tom." It was said to be "incredibly ardent." [Author's Note: An exhibition marking the bicentennial of the 1814 Frost Fair is currently on display at the Museum of London Docklands. Tom de Castella, of BBC News Magazine, has posted an article about the exhibit, Frost fair:   When an elephant walked on the frozen River Thames. The article includes a number of period images from the 1814 Frost Fair, including a picture of a two-hundred year-old piece of gingerbread topped with treacle which was purchased at the fair and kept as a souvenir. Its blue paper wrapper can also be seen in the photograph.]

Souvenirs were one of the most popular items for sale at the Frost Fair. Not just pieces of gingerbread, but a whole plethora of items from cups to cutlery, all labeled with the information that they were purchased on the Thames, at the Frost Fair of 1814. There were also several stalls selling jewelry, toys and other more upscale trinkets. By the last few days of the fair, supplies of souvenirs were running low and one fair-goer recorded his opinion that " … the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost." A selection of the memorabilia and prints from several London Frost Fairs can be seen here.

One type of souvenir which was readily available throughout the run of the fair were those which were printed on the ice for each customer. At the great Frost Fair of 1683 – 1684, the printer, Croome, took his printing press out onto the frozen river, set it up in his stall and began selling souvenir cards on which were printed the customer’s name, the date and the statement that the card was printed on the Thames. He charged sixpence for each card and was taking in at least five pounds a day, a sum which, at the time, was ten times the weekly wage of a laborer. Following Croome’s example, at every subsequent Frost Fair, at least one printer, usually more, set up a stall with a printing press where they sold printed souvenirs to eager customers. Over the years, these printed souvenirs became increasingly popular, so much so that some printers posted broadsides around the Frost Fair advertising their wares. One of the more charming of those broadsides came to light a couple of years ago. An image of it can be found at the BookTryst blog, in the post, The Ice Capades For Printers by Stephen J. Gertz. A number of other printed ephemera from various London Frost Fairs can be seen in Printed ‘Frost Fair’ ephemera in the University Library, Liam Sims’ blog post at the Special Collections blog of the Cambridge University Library. There were at least ten printers who set up stalls at the 1814 Frost Fair. One of them, George Davis, printed a 124-page book out on the frozen Thames during the Frost Fair. He titled it Frostiana; or, A history of the River Thames, in a frozen state; with an account of the late severe frost; and the wonderful effects of frost, snow, ice, and cold, in England, and in different parts of the world; interspersed with various amusing anecdotes. To which is added, the art of skating. There are still a few copies of this book in existance, but they are extraordinarily rare.

There was other printed matter for sale at the 1814 Frost Fair, in addition to all those printed souvenirs. A number of book sellers and sheet music sellers had set up stalls along the icy "City-road." Many of them labeled their wares as having been sold on the frozen Thames. The first day of the Frost Fair, Tuesday, 1 February 1814, was also the day on which Lord Byron’s partially autobiographical story in verse, The Corsair, was published by John Murray and released in London. It sold 10,000 copies on that first day alone. One wonders how many of those copies were sold at the stalls of the book sellers at the Frost Fair. It is not known if Lord Byron attended the Frost Fair himself, though he may have done so, since it was a fashionable venue for the beau monde. Along with the book and sheet music sellers, there were also at least a couple of booths offering political pamphlets to the passers-by. The Tories had a prominent booth, and it seems likely that the Whigs and other active political groups did as well.

Despite the fact that the Frost Fair was an essentially impromptu affair, there was some organization with regard to its arrangements. Vendors stalls were set up in groups, based on what they were selling. Thus, the food stalls were all grouped together, as were the stalls selling primarily alcohol. These were known as "fuddling tents" due to the effects of the strong liquor they sold. The souvenir sellers had their own area as did the book and sheet music sellers. Even a few barbers and shoemakers had set up booths on the ice. There was also an area of stalls where all forms of gambling was available, including Rouge-et-Noir, E.O., Te-totums, Wheel of Fortune, and Prick the Garter. Nearby the gambling area were larger, more enclosed stalls populated by the type of female who would not be welcome in polite society. Regardless of the cold, many of those women were quite busy. Perhaps it was the cold itself which drove more customers to their stalls on the frozen river than might have visited them at their usual premises.

Though the first frost fair stalls and booths had been covered by blankets, as the eighteenth century progressed, the preferred stall covering came to be canvas, often old ship sails. Most watermen still used the oars of their wherries to support their stalls. At the 1814 Frost Fair, most of the larger stalls were covered with canvas. There were, however, a few small stalls, typically erected by those of limited means, which were covered with old blankets, quilts, counterpanes or other readily available large textiles. Most of the stalls on the frozen Thames were decorated with colorful streamers and banners which were intended to attract customers, and added to the festive atmosphere of the fair. A banner carrying the words "City of Moscow" was raised at one stall in reference to the extreme cold which had brought on the Frost Fair. Many of the "fuddling tents" hung banners with patriotic names for their establishments, such as "Wellington for Ever — Good Ale," "The Nelson," and "The Shannon," a Royal Navy ship which had won an important victory during the War of 1812. Quite a lot of the stalls and booths also flew the English flag, while others sported the flags of various countries, many of them the flags of Britain’s allies against Napoleon. One of the stalls had raised an orange flag with the words "Orange Boven" in large letters. This was a reference to the recent restoration of William, Prince of Orange, to the throne of Holland. There is, however, no record that any French flags were flown at the 1814 London Frost Fair.

The many vendor stalls and booths were only part of the various amusements and entertainments which were available to those who attended the Frost Fair held on the Thames in 1814. Next week, the Frost Fair beyond the stalls.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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13 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Last Frost Fair — Part One

  1. I keep threatening to use the last ice fair as a backdrop for a fiction, but I haven’t got around to it yet. I didn’t know that wherries shot the bridge, I had always assumed it was done in lighters or jollyboats or longboats. My great-great uncle was a wherryman on the broads but sailing to London as he carried mustard for the Colman family. There was a great rivalry between the Norfolk Wherrymen and the London Bargemen [the London Barge is essentially identical to the Norfolk Wherry, single masted fore-and-aft rigged, there are some small differences. A London Barge nowadays doesn't have a mast that unsteps, unlike the Norfolk wherry which has to deal with low bridges, so thinking about it I can see then shooting the bridge... and a Norfolk Wherryman boasts that he has such a shallow draft he can sail on a heavy dew]. Uncle Elijah was the wherryman of choice for the Colman family when they went on holiday annually on a Broads trip in the 1890′s, and we donated a photograph of him doing so to the Beccles museum; I strongly suspect that health and safety nowadays would prohibit the family all clustered together on the cabin roof for a photograph, and not a lifejacket in sight…
    Before the wherry, which began to appear in the 16th century based on the Dutch hoey, there were keels, wares and kedges, which were little more than boxes with sails. They went to windward like a drunken bum-boat woman. The little-quoted second verse of ‘see saw sacradown’ may only have survived in oral tradition that I learned as a child; I’ll quote the first verse too in case you haven’t heard it.
    See saw sacradown
    Which is the way to London Town?
    One foot up and the other foot down.
    That’s the way to London town

    see saw, jack-by-the-hedge
    which is the way to London Bridge?
    Some by ware and some by kedge
    That’s the way to London Bridge

    Heh, sorry, shipping is one of my interests…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for sharing that interesting bit of personal naval history. I did not know about the rivalry between the Norfolk Wherrymen and the London Bargemen. Perhaps there is a plot bunny in there somewhere. Also, thanks for sharing the rhyme. I have never seen it before, and now it is recorded for the enjoyment of others.

      From what I can tell, the Thames wherries were much smaller, narrower and had no masts, unlike the much larger Norfolk Wherries. And it seems the width of the arches in the old London Bridge varied, some being rather narrow while others were fairly wide. I suspect that the wherrymen who did shoot the bridge chose to do so through one of the wider arches. Certainly, other types of small boats were also used to shoot the bridge, perhaps through some of the more narrow arches, based on the size of the boat. Either way, it does seem to be a rather dangerous sport!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • there’s a children’s story set in the time of Pepys which involves shooting the bridge, I can’t for the life of me bring to mind the author or title, only a recollection of having enjoyed it.
        Thames Barges tend to be a little less broad across the beam, but certainly the later ones, which I know more about, were fairly large. We have one in dock in Ipswich right now, and it’s comparable to Uncle ‘Lijah’s Wherry. They were used in the Victorian period for the round trip of carrying horse manure north to the farms for fertiliser, and bringing hay back to feed the horses.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Perhaps it was The Popingay Mystery, by Geoffrey Trease?

          I do hope they cleaned out the boats before they put the hay in them!!!

          =^..^=

          • That sounds familiar, was it the Popinjay Stairs? [I've just looked this up and it was republished as the Popinjay Mystery, I think my copy is a 1st Ed, I know it's ex library withdrawn for sale!] . One of the several excellent authors of historical Childrens’ books whose works I devoured as a child and return to from time to time [I must go look it out...] along with Leon Garfield [December Rose featured a Wherry or london barge as I recall], Henry Treece, and GA Henty. You don’t want to KNOW how many feet of shelving my children’s books take up, because that means admitting it’s a mere fraction of my collection of adult fiction, and – most of my shelving – reference books.

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              I am not sure of the exact title, it has been quite a few decades since I read it. I remembered that it had Popinjay in the title, it was a mystery and the author’s last name was Trease. I don’t have the book, it was one of a bunch of English children’s books which were in my dad’s bookstore when I was a little girl living in Arizona. I used to go to the store with him sometimes on Saturday and spent most of my time reading.

              Most of my books now are part of my research collection, though I do have a nice little collection of books of fairy tales, which I have adored since I was little.

              =^..^=

              • Haha as it happens I’m co-authoring an anthology of fairy tales brought into the modern world… I suppose it’s more folk tales than fairy tales as such… If I come across a second copy of the Trease I’ll mail it to you.

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                That is very kind of you.

                BTW – I am assuming you know about Andrew Lang’s “Coloured Fairy Books.” I have a full set of them, in softcover, since they were reprinted here in the States by Dover Books, at quite reasonable prices. But I also found out recently that they are all online, both at Project Gutenberg, and at the web site, Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. They could be a great resource for your anthology.

                Regards,

                Kat

  2. Thanks, Kathryn, this post brings the fair to life. Thanks also for the great links. I love the one to the selection of memorabilia and prints where one finds thepiece of gingerbread bought at the Thames frost fair in 1814, “the only surviving one of its kind” – capital!
    I am looking forward to part II.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the post. I thought that piece of gingerbread was quite amazing myself. To have survived all this time, almost completely intact is no mean feat. I am glad it is in a museum, which should enable it to survive at least another couple of centuries. And I thought Regency authors would enjoy seeing a real piece of gingerbread from the last Regency Frost Fair.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   The Last Frost Fair — Part Two | The Regency Redingote

  4. Pingback: History A'la Carte 3-6-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

  5. Pingback: Frostiana by George Davis | The Regency Redingote

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