Regency Bicentennial:   The Last Frost Fair — Part Two

Last week, I wrote about the beginning of 1814 Frost Fair, which lasted four days. Two centuries ago, this past Wednesday, the last Frost Fair to be held on the River Thames in London had come to an end. Temperatures had finally begun to moderate, and as the mercury rose, the ice began to melt and break up. But some of those in attendance at the fair, many quite inebriated, were not quick enough to leave the ice and there were a number of accidents and close calls as the river once again became liquid.

But before we let the Frost Fair of 1814 melt away, let us take a look at that wider realm of the wonderland on ice …

The many vendor stalls and booths which were set up along "City-road," the main thoroughfare of the Frost Fair, which ran nearly the length of the middle of the river from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, were only part of the various attractions which brought people out onto the ice. Last week’s article examined the details of the vendor stalls. This week we will explore all the attractions spread out beyond those stalls across the frozen Thames. It is important to keep in mind that the ice in the area near the middle of the river was fairly smooth and level. But at various points along the shore, huge chunks of ice had frozen in place creating very rough patches, some of them rather like blocky hills of solid ice. These rough areas were mostly avoided, except by boys and young men who could not resist the challenge of scaling their icy heights.

Ice skaters were attracted to the frozen Thames even before the first Frost Fair in 1608. The blades of these early skates were made of sturdy animal bones tied onto the skater’s shoes. When iron skate blades were introduced from Holland in the late 1660s, ice skating in England became even more popular. Frequently, ice skaters led the way onto the frozen Thames well before the vendor stalls were set up or any of the more organized sports were available for the amusement of fair-goers. Those skaters were not professional athletes, they were just regular citizens who enjoyed the freedom and exhilaration of gliding over the broad expanse of ice-covered river. In fact, many skaters abandoned or curtailed their ice skating when large numbers of fair-goers began to throng the Frost Fair. Others just moved up river, beyond the area of the fair, to avoid the crowds.

English football is an ancient game which dates back to at least medieval times. The rules for the game could vary widely from county to county, but most involved two large teams of men battling over the ball across a large field or meadow. The frozen Thames was an ideal football pitch in crowded London, and had been so even before the first Frost Fair. Just like the ice skaters, as soon as the ice was determined to be ready, the footballers were out on the frozen river, often before the bulk of the vendor stalls and other attractions were in place. Typically, these games were organized by local men who enjoyed playing football, they were not professional players and they were not contracted to entertain those visiting the Frost Fair. These were men of the lower and working classes, but class divisions were ignored out on the frozen Thames, and many people of all classes would pause to watch a game in progress.

Another participatory sport which was popular at the Frost Fair was skittles, a type of bowling also known as nine-pins. Skittles had been played in London for centuries, most often as a pub game, though also as a field game where possible. It was only natural that there would be games of skittles played on the ice during the London Frost Fair. Probably due to its popularity as a pub game, most of the skittle alleys at the Frost Fair seem to have been set up in fairly close proximity to the area of the stalls which were selling alcoholic beverages. No doubt the spiritous libations enhanced the fun of the games for both participants and onlookers. In addition to rowdy games of skittles, there were a few much more sedate games of bowls set up for the amusement of ladies and gentlemen of quality. These games were situated at some distance from the alcohol vendors, though, more than likely, hot drinks such as tea, chocolate and coffee were served at these more composed and dignified diversions.

Another more genteel sport which could be enjoyed at the Frost Fair was archery. Target butts were set up on the ice, for safety, at some distance from the vendor stalls. Fair-goers would be provided with bows and arrows, for a charge of a few pence to a shilling or more, depending upon the number of arrows they wished to loose at the targets. Some archers shot alone, for the practice or to demonstrate their prowess to their friends. But it seems that archery contests were the more usual order of the day. Two gentlemen, or two ladies, might shoot against one another. Or, couples, either courting or already married, might take up their bows in competition. As with so many of the sports which took place at the Frost Fair, there was almost certainly some wagering involved with at least some of these archery contests.

There were a number of more organized sports which were available once the Frost Fair was up and running. Horse races were organized by horsemen who wished to demonstrate the superior speed of their horses. There are suggestions that the horses which raced on the icy track of the frozen Thames were shod with shoes which had what amounted to cleats or raised iron lugs which would give them better traction running on the slippery surface. These horse races were usually match races between owners for bragging rights, since no major prizes were offered and there is no evidence any of these races was sanctioned by the Jockey Club. Nevertheless, the horses attracted the attention of many fair-goers and most races had a crowd of onlookers. There is no doubt that substantial sums were wagered on the outcomes of these horse races.

Horses were not only out on the ice to race. On at least one or two days of the fair, a fox hunt was organized. A live fox was captured, brought to the Thames and was released on the ice just before the hunt. Soon after, the foxhound pack was set on the scent to follow the fox and the hunt was on. Unlike a cross-country hunt, there were no hedges or ditches to jump, but the slippery surface of the ice and the rough patches were probably enough of a challenge for most of those riding their horses after the hounds. These fox hunts do not appear to have been intended as a spectator sport, since the movements of the fox would be quick and unpredictable, so only those on horse-back would be able to follow the hunt. Notwithstanding, people in the vicinity of the hunt while it was in progress would have been able view at least portions of it. For many Londoners, this may have been the only sight they would ever have of a fox hunt. There are no extant records to tell us of the fate of any of these foxes. There are also no reports of any injury to any of the riders or their horses.

Though perhaps less noble than race horses and hunters, there were about a half dozen donkeys out on the ice during the Frost Fair. Some enterprising fellow brought his donkeys onto the frozen river on the second day of the fair and charged one shilling to anyone who wanted a donkey ride. Donkey riding was a favorite pastime in the country, as can be seen in a drawing in Mrs. Hurst Dancing, but there were many in the metropolis who had never seen, let alone ridden, a donkey. For the remaining days of the Frost Fair, the donkeys gave many rides, earning many shillings for their owner. One can only hope he returned the favor by ensuring they were well-fed and had a warm and dry stable in which to sleep.

Other animals figured in the Frost Fair of 1814. The most exotic of those animals was the elephant which was led across the river near Blackfriars Bridge on the first day of the fair to prove that the ice was strong and safe. Considering the proclivities of the age, it is almost certain that there were a number of wagers placed on the outcome of this elephant walk. A beargarden was set up on the ice near London Bridge, at which were held both bear and bull-baitings. Thus, there were bears and bulls out on the frozen river during the fair, along with the dogs who would be set on them for the amusement of the gathered crowds. There were also reports of cock throwing at the fair, but it does not appear to have gone on every day. Cock throwing had been a favorite pastime of teenage boys and young men during country fairs for centuries. Such events were often organized by groups of boys for their own entertainment. It is most likely that such was the case at the 1814 Frost Fair. A group of boys would acquire a rooster, they would secure it somewhere in the vicinity of the fair and then throw things at it. There were also a few itinerant animal trainers who moved though the area of the fair, giving impromptu displays of their animals’ special abilities in the hope of receiving payment from the crowd. Such trained animals might include dogs, birds, ferrets, and ponies or horses, among others.

Bear and bull-baiting and cock throwing were not the only brutal sports which were on offer at the Frost Fair. A number of wrestling matches were organized, as well as a couple of boxing mills. However, probably because the fair was unplanned and lasted only a few days, those who participated in these combative sports were not prominent wrestlers or pugilists. It would not have been possible to arrange bouts with the top contenders in these sports at such short notice. Several hockey games were also played on the ice during the course of the fair, and they could be just as violent as were boxing mills and wrestling matches. So, those with a taste for blood sports had multiple opportunities to indulge those tastes at the 1814 Frost Fair.

More light-hearted amusements were also to be seen at the Frost Fair, many of which gave a carnival-like atmosphere to the event. Sword swallowers, jugglers, fire-eaters and men walking on stilts circulated through the icy fair ground seeking tips from the crowds and directing people to the sundry side-shows set up on the ice. Most of these side-shows included expanded performances by the fire-eaters, juggles and sword-swallowers who wandered through the fair, along with the occasional display of curiosities, vegetable or animal, some alive, some not. A very popular attraction at many of these sideshows was a fortune-teller, usually a woman in very exotic attire. These women may or may not have been real gypsies who foretold the future for anyone willing to press a few coins into their outstretched hand.

Another very popular attraction at the Frost Fair were the puppet-shows which were staged in portable puppet show booths which could be easily moved to different locations around the icy fairgrounds. Though today we typically think of puppet shows as entertainment mainly for children, such was not the case in the early nineteenth century. Many of these shows were specifically intended for adults, and portrayed very mature, usually comedic topics, ranging from politics to current events. Punch and Judy puppet shows were already a traditional form of street and fair entertainment during the Regency. There is no doubt that at least some of the puppet shows at the 1814 Frost Fair featured those two familiar, if often outrageous, characters.

Just as many fairs and carnivals today include both sideshows and fun rides, so too did the Frost Fair of 1814. Among these rides was one known as whirling chairs. This ride consisted of a sturdy stake pounded deep into the ice, to which a long rope was attached. A chair was then tied to the other end of the rope and the chair was then spun around the stake. Curiously, an eighteenth-century treatment for insanity was also called a whirling chair, but such chairs were actually stationary chairs which were spun around while the occupant was strapped in to it. Some of the Thames boatmen added wheels to their boats and decorated them with colorful streamers. The boatmen then pulled passengers over the ice to view the fair activities, for a fee. Great swings were built, which consisted of a wooden frame-work from which were suspended half cylinders fitted with seats. A pair of these swings, each of a different height, can be seen in this print after a painting from the Museum of London, by Luke Clennell, of the Frost Fair of February 1814. The swings can be seen filled with merry-makers just to the left of St. Paul’s Cathedral, near the right side of the painting. Another view of the swings can be seen in this print, also owned by the Museum of London. These swings were suspended several feet above ground, adding to the thrill of the ride, and offering a wider view of the fair at that height. They were powered by strong, powerful men who stood below and kept them swinging. Records state that merry-go-rounds were set up at the Frost Fair, but these merry-go-rounds were not like those which we know today. Rather than being anchored to a circular platform below, the large carved animals of these early merry-go-rounds were suspended by chains from a circular framework above. The animals would fly out due to the centrifugal force caused by the spinning of the shaft which supported the upper framework. These merry-go-rounds were powered either by horses or mules walking in a circle, or by strong men pulling a sturdy rope or cranking a geared mechanism.

Singing and dancing were also part of the Frost Fair, by both day and night. Singers and musicians, either singly, or in small groups, travelled through the crowds, pausing here and there to play a tune or sing a song in return for tips. Some musical groups had tents or marquees where an audience could enjoy their performance under cover. A large barge which had been frozen in the ice in the middle of the river was commandeered by a group of Thames boatmen who adorned it with colorful streamers and flags. They hired a group of musicians to play dance tunes and turned the bedecked barge into a dancing platform. The dances which took place on this barge were quite democratic. For a fee, fair-goers of any social status could come aboard and dance the night away.

And what nights there were during that Frost Fair! There were few clouds and the stars twinkled above. The moon was full on the last day of the fair, so it was waxing gibbous and thus nearly full for the entire duration of the fair. A number of those who attended the Frost Fair at night have left us their descriptions of how eerily beautiful the scene was after dark, when the bright moonlight bathed the white landscape of the frozen river and the surrounding area which was still covered in snow. It was said to glow in a silvery blue light which was singularly novel and lovely. On the night of 3 February, due to the extreme cold, two very dense concentric circles were seen around the very nearly full moon and the unique sight was remarked upon by many who saw it.

But all was not beauty and harmony at the Frost Fair. Thousands of people attended the fair every day, most to take in the sights and enjoy themselves, but there were also others who came to prey upon those fair-goers. Quite a number of pick-pockets were wandering among the crowds, taking the opportunity to purloin anything of value. They were often assisted by the frozen river, since they were always on the lookout for someone who had fallen on the slippery surface. They would rush to the aid of whoever had fallen, surreptitiously going through their pockets as they helped the person to rise.

Though some who have written about the Frost Fairs state that the fair was held to celebrate the freezing of the Thames, that is quite far from the truth. The extreme cold which caused the river to freeze solid led to a great deal of hardship for many people and they turned to the Frost Fair in desperation to find a substitute for their meagre incomes in order to be able to provide for themselves and their families. For some, like the Thames watermen, the crowds which flocked to the Frost Fair were a windfall. It is estimated that most took in at least £6 a day, significantly more than they might have made ferrying people across the flowing Thames. Many of the vendors and performers did make more than they would make during a normal day, but the fair only lasted four days. Food and fuel had become very scarce and thus expensive, so any extra money these people made was spent just trying to survive the deadly cold. Trade had nearly ground to a halt with the river frozen and many found themselves out of work. Not all were so lucky as to be able to replace that lost income at the Frost Fair and times were very hard. Farmers, fishermen and dock workers were some of those hit the hardest by the deep freeze. So, too were ship captains and their crews, whose ships were trapped in the ice. Their cargoes could not be unloaded, nor could they leave their precious cargoes unguarded, to seek other work. The wealthy probably enjoyed the Frost Fair very much, but those of lesser means were there simply trying to find an alternative to replace their lost income. Rather than a celebration, for many, the Frost Fair was more a distraction from the bleak reality which the cold temperatures forced them to endure. Of course, children of all ages and social status were fascinated by the river they knew becoming a solid sheet of ice. Any child who could manage it found a way to go the Frost Fair.

Unlike the Frost Fair of 1683 – 84, the Frost Fair of 1814 lasted only a few days. By the morning of Saturday, 5 February, the wind turned to the south and temperatures had begun to moderate. However, it also began to snow, though that quickly turned to sleet. The ice, under the heavy load of the Frost Fair, began to crack. Some heard the ominous sounds and quickly made their way off the ice. But many intoxicated revelers were oblivious to anything but their own pleasure and missed those warning sounds. Most of those who had set up stalls at the fair were in dire need of every penny they could earn and kept their small shops open long after the first warnings came that the ice was beginning to break up. One tavern stall owner returned to the shore for more stock, leaving an assistant to mind the shop, along with a couple of inebriated customers. Being cold, they started a small fire which soon spread to the remaining stock of alcohol. A large ice floe broke away under the now fully engulfed shop and it was last seen floating down river in flames. By the end of the day, the ice was shifting and making loud creaking and cracking sounds. By the next day, Sunday, huge cracks had appeared in the surface of the ice. It was breaking up into large and small ice floes which were all pulled down river by the motion of the tide. Several stalls were seen floating down the river, some with the vendors still in the tiny structures. Watermen and others along the river did what they could to save these unfortunates, and most were pulled from the ice to safety. However, a few were beyond reach and, dragged away by the strong current, were never seen again. The next day, most of the ice was gone. Thus ended the last Frost Fair on the Thames.

There were several reasons why there was never another frost fair. A new London Bridge was built slightly upstream of the old London Bridge in 1823. When it was completed, in 1831, the old London Bridge, with its many narrow arches which severely restricted the flow of the river was torn down. The new bridge had much wider arches which did not inhibit the flow of the river. The Little Ice Age came to an end by the middle of the nineteenth century, thus bringing milder winters to northern Europe and the British Isles. In 1814, as it has been for many centuries before, the Thames was a broad and slow-moving river, thus making it more susceptible to freezing. But during the Victorian era, in an effort to improve sanitation, several wide marshy areas along the lower Thames were drained and embankments were built along its shores. These embankments narrowed the river, thereby increasing the speed of its flow and reducing the likelihood that it would ever freeze solid again. It has been cold enough since 1814 that the lower reaches of the Thames have frozen, but never completely and never to a depth that would support another frost fair.

The Frost Fair of 1814 was a unique and spectacular event which occurred during the Regency. It was fun, beautiful and dangerous all at the same time. Dear Regency Authors, the Frost Fair can make the perfect setting for any number of scenes in novels set during our favorite era. Would your characters enjoy a ride a merry-go-round or a whirling chair? Might they engage in an archery contest, or a game of bowls? Perhaps a young couple will steal away to spend the night dancing under the silvery moonlight on the decorated barge frozen in the middle of the river? How else might the 1814 Frost Fair serve your story?

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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14 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Last Frost Fair — Part Two

  1. I have in mind a series set about the founding of a charity school for indigent gentlewomen and the idea of taking the children is almost irresistible…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I agree. From what I read during my research, there were a lot of children who went to the fair and most of them found it quite magical. Though there were also reports of a number of children at the fair who were making mischief of one sort or another.

      One of the most interesting records was in the memoir of a man who, as a teen, walked from Pentonville with his brother to spend a day at the Frost Fair. His name was John Hodgkin, born in 1800, he was a retired lawyer whose children asked him to write down some memories of his childhood in 1860. Apparently, both boys found the fair quite memorable and had a very good time.

      Sadly, because of the extreme cold, there were a number of poor children who spent their time near the river that first week of February mudlarking, scavenging for trinkets they could sell for food, or for bits of coal they could use to heat their homes. Perhaps some of them might be taken in by the charity school.



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  3. As you brought the Frost Fair to life, it’s tempting to use as much of its elements as possible. Maybe one could do a 1814-version of the “Love…actually”-movie,with several couples and singles finding or rebuilding their love at the Frost Fair.

    One of the stories could be about the archery contest you mention: two gentlemen in love with the same girl duke it out whom of them may offer for her.

    Another one could go like this:

    A young lady is revolted by the wicked game “cock throwing”. She rescues the poor bird and gives its young tormentors a good scold. She takes the cock with her, but after a few minutes, the father of one the boys comes after her: She had stolen the bird! Should she not return it, he would call the constables!
    As the young lady is very spirited she gives him a piece of her mind about cruelty to animals and him being unfit to keep cocks, so of course she would return the bird.
    The man still insists she should at least pay for the bird, being his property.
    This argument she finds hard to confute. She starts to search for her purse – but it was stolen by some of the pickpockets haunting the Frost Fair.
    He closes in on her in a threatening way.
    This is the moment for a handsome gentleman to intervene. He has watched the scene and now offeres the lady to lend her the small amount needed to pay-off the wicked man.
    She knows she should not accept his money but as he looks kind and insists, she agrees. The job being done, the lady and the gentleman continue to look at the stalls etc of the Frost Fair together. He kindly carries the cock for her (it ruins the sleeves of his perfectly cut coat, ungrateful creature as it is) and slowly but surely they fall in love…

    • Anna, I love your plot bunnies!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Good plot bunnies, all. However, I wonder how much fun can be had while the gentleman is holding a cranky and possibly injured cock, which would almost certainly be squawking its head off. Perhaps the gentleman pays a young lad, not one of those throwing at the cock, to take the poor bird to his home for care? Thus further pleasing the lady and paving the way for romance.


      • Perfect solution, Kathryn!

        When Sarah joins, the three of us will soon draw up some great stories for our “Love…actually-in-1814”-movie.

        Okay, who shall be the main actors – and whom of us has connections to Hollywood?
        :- )

        • I know everyone seems to go silly for Colin Firth, but could we have Viggo Mortensen?

          • Fine with me!
            I would want Ioan Gruffrudd,too.


            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Sorry, ladies, I very seldom watch movies and have never seen the one you mention. Nor do I know anything about which actors are considered handsome these days The ones I have seen are usually so scruffy they just give me the creeps. The only actor I have seen in recent years whom I think is actually handsome is Richard Armitage.

              As you might imagine, I do not have, or want, any Hollywood contacts. I regret that you will have to sort out this movie business between yourselves.


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