Frost Fairs on the River Thames

With winter upon us, it is interesting to ponder winters past in London. The river Thames froze solid numerous times between 1309 and 1814. We have evidence in contemporary paintings and prints of at least five occasions, when a sustained period of cold weather made it possible to hold Frost Fairs on the river: 1683, 1715, 1739, 1789, and 1814. All the Frost Fairs took place upstream of Old London Bridge, because the bridge impeded the flow of the river, and therefore precipitated freezing.

The Great Frost of 1683-84 began at the start of December, continuing over Christmas, and lasted until the 4th of February 1684. The fair offered plenty of attractions including a whole ox roasted on the ice, stilt walking, hunting a fox, and even a printing booth to provide people with a permanent souvenir of their visit to the fair. King Charles II’s visit was recorded with a printed memento which is now in the Museum of London.

View of a frost fair on the River Thames with eating, drinking and entertainment booths stretching across the ice. Figures travel by horse-drawn carriages, skates, boats with wheels and boats transformed into sledges. In the distance London Bridge can be seen.

Date of Execution 1683, Main Print Collection London Metropolitan Archives, engraving.
A view of the Frost Fair of 1683-84 which is freely available to view on Collage- The Picture Archive, a collection of images and prints from London Metropolitan Archives.

View of a frost fair on the River Thames with eating, drinking and entertainment booths stretching across the frozen river. The lower margin contains a key.
Date of Execution c1684 London Metropolitan Archives Main Print Collection Engraver

An extract from Blanket-Fair, or the History of Temple Street, Being a relation of the merry Pranks plaid on the River Thames during the Great Frost. Published in London Corbet 1684. Available to consult at Guildhall Library Bside 7.159 Please note proof of ID is required to consult this item.

Here damsels and handed like Nymphs in the Bath
By Gentlemen ushers with Legs like a Lath;
They slide to a Tune and cry give me your Hand,
When the tottering Fops are scarce able to stand.
Then with fear and with care
They arrive at the Fair,
Where Wenches sell Glasses and crackt Earthen ware:
To shew that the World, and the pleasures it brings,
Are made up of brittle and slippery things.

A Spark of the Bar with his Cane and his Muff,
One day went to treat his new rigg’d kitchinstuff,
Let slip from her Gallant, the gay Damel try’d
(As oft she had done in the Countrey) to slide
In the way lay a stump
That with a dam’d thump
She broke both her shoostringes and crippl’d her Rump.
The heat of her Buttocks made such a great thaw,
She had like to have drowned the man of the Law.

All you that are warm both in Body and Purse.
I give you this warning for better or worse,
Be not there in the Moonshine, pray take my advice,
For slippery things have been done on the Ice
Maids trhere have bin said
To lose Madien-head,
And Sparks from full Pockets gone empty to Bed.
If their Brains and their Bodies had not bin too warm,
‘tis forty to one they had come to less harm

There were further Frost Fairs in 1715-16 and 1739-4

View of a frost fair on the River Thames looking towards London Bridge, c1715, woodcut.
London Metropolitan Archives, Main Print Collection.

The caption reads:
Behold the Liquid Thames now frozen o’re,
That lately ships of mighty Burthen bore.
The Watermen for want of Rowing-boats,
Make use of Booths to get their Pence and Groats.
Here you may print your Name, tho’ cannot write,
‘Cause num’d with Cold; ‘tis done with great delight.
Then lay it by, that Ages yet to come,
May see what Things upon the Ice were done.

A. The Nine-pin Playing.
B. Cripple Atkins roasting an Ox.
C. Boys sliding
D. The Printing Booth
E. The Musick Booth
F. A shoulder of Mutton roasting in a String at the Sign of the Rat in a Cage.
G. The Tavern
H. The Rowling Press
I. The Geneva Booth [where gin is sold]
J. The Gingerbread Stall
K. The Goldsmiths
L. Huffing Jack.
M. Will. Ellis, the Post and his Wife Bess, Rhiming on the hard frost.

A painting of the Frost Fair of 1739 by Jan Griffier the Younger can be viewed at Guildhall Art Gallery. This is a view from near Westminster, looking down the river towards London Bridge.

Great Frost of 1739
“The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739”; showing the Frost Fair in the foreground and figures inspecting the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge on the right. In the distance is a view of the City of London including St Paul’s Cathedral and spires of the City churches. By Jan Griffier the Younger (dc. 1750)

Executed in 1739, this oil painting is in the permanent collection at Guildhall Art Gallery:

Over the next page is a memento of the Frost Fair of 1740 printed upon the frozen Thames for a Miss Elizabeth Roberts.

View of a frost fair on the River Thames. A printing booth and coffee stalls can be seen on the ice. The etching was printed in 1740
London Metropolitan Archives: Main Print Collection.

Icedore Frostiface (pseudonym) writes An Account of All the Principal Frosts for above a Hundred Years past.

An Account of all the Principal Frosts for above an hundred years past : with political remarks and poetical descriptions. To which are added, a philosophical theory of freezing; and a frigid essay upon frost-fair / By Icedore Frostiface, of Freesland, astrologer (pseud.).
Frostiface, Icedore (pseud.)
(London): Printed and sold at the Goldeen (!) King’s-Head Printing Booth, in Frost Fair and by C. Corbett, 1740.
Bound in half calf.
Available to consult at Guildhall Library: shelfmark-A 5.1 NO 26. Please note proof of ID is required.

An extract from A frigid essay upon frost fair where the author admonishes against a ‘barbarous custom’…

For, if by Chance, unable to convey
Too great a Weight, the parting Ice give way:
Or the bright Knots which on its Surface rise,
O’erturn the blushing Dame before your Eyes,
What Shouts, what Laughter fill the echoing Skies?
No Pity in one merry Face appears;
The Fair, o’erwhelm’d with Jokes instead of Tears;
Her treach’rous Feet, and Garments as they flow,
Laments, and blames the whistling Winds that blow,
And heave her swelling Train, exposing all below.

In the winter of 1788-1789 the Thames froze extensively: from Putney Bridge to Rotherhithe. In the engraving below people are drinking and dancing in a makeshift tent. Suspended above them is a cat in in a cage and the caption above it reads ‘The Original Cat in the Cage by T. Roberts.”

View of boats on the River Thames at Rotherhithe during the frost of 1789. Figures can be seen eating and drinking in the foreground.
Date of Execution is 1789 London Metropolitan Archives: Main Print Collection
The artist is Samuel, George (fl.1786-1823)
Engraver Birch, W.
Publisher Birch, William (1755-1834)

The last Frost Fair of February 1814 lasted only a week. Thousands of people paid 2d or 3d entry tolls to the Watermen who, having been done out of a livelihood by the freeze, dug channels in the ice by the banks of the river and asked for payment for assisting people across to the fair. See satire below by George Cruikshank from 1814.

“Gambols on the river Thames, Feby. 1814”; shows a frost fair in the region of Blackfriars Bridge. To the right in the foreground is a waterman with skittles and behind him a man’s wooden leg has caught in the ice. To the right is a printing press and in the centre a woman has slipped on the ice next to a fiddler playing music as a couple dances.
Executed in 1814. Available to view at London Metropolitan Archives. Artist and engraver Cruikshank, George (1792-1878)

View of a frost fair on the River Thames with street sellers, musicians, fairground rides and refreshment booths. St Paul’s Cathedral can be seen in the distance.
Date of Execution 1814. Available at London Metropolitan Archives. Artist Clennell, Luke (1781-1840) Engraver Clennell, Luke (1781-1840); Reeve (fl.c.1760) Medium: etching/aquatint.

See below a detailed print of the Frost Fair of 1814 showing a long queue of visitors waiting to have their names printed as a souvenir of their visit to the fair.

View of a frost fair on the River Thames in 1814, copperplate and letterpress printers can be seen at work on the ice and in the foreground a hot mutton pie seller is approached by two customers. The City of London can be seen in the background. Date of Execution: 1814. Available to consult at London Metropolitan Archives. Engraver anon. Publisher: Pitts, John (1765-1844)

The poem beneath the print reads:
All you that are curious downright
And fond of seeing every sight,
If to the Thames you had repaired
You might have seen a famous fair.
Diversions of every kind you’ll see
With parties drinking of coffee and tea,
And dancing too I do declare
Upon the Thames they call Frost Fair

It was really curious for to see
Both old and young so full of glee
The drinking booths they entered in
And call’d away for purl and Gin
Some played at Threadle my Needle Nan
The lasses slipt down as they ran
Which made the men quite full of glee
The young girls’ legs for all to see.

The Watermen so neat and trim
With bottle filled with Old Tom’s Gin
And others bawled among the throng
Who’s for a glass of Sampson strong?
Here’s nuts and gingerbread: who buys?
Come, boys, and win my mutton pies.
Come, ladies, they’re both hot and nice;
Fear not to eat one on the ice.

Boys, men and women not a few
Upon the ice they ventured too
And swings there were I do declare
To take a ride up in the air
And booths wherein you might regale
And have a pint of beer or ale,
And skittle playing I do declare
Upon the Thames they call Frost Fair.

Now to conclude my icy song
I’m glad to see the frost is gone
And ships and barges all afloat
And Watermen rowing of their boats
Black Diamond barges do appear,
That coals they may not be so dear
So toss a bumper off with cheer,
And bid adieu to Frosty Fair.

The demolition of old London Bridge in 1831 improved the flow of the Thames, preventing it from freezing over, and making it highly improbable that there will ever again be a frost fair on the Thames in London.

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian, Guildhall Library.

Collage, the City of London Picture Archive is available free online:

London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB. Their email address is and their website can be found at

London Metropolitan Archives currently has a digital exhibition entitled Frozen London:

Guildhall Library
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Carolling in the Collections


Much loved Christmas carols will be sung across the City in special services this month and many of us will go along and sing words and tunes which have been a part of our enjoyment of the season since childhood.

A carol was originally a joyful song which could be sung at any time of year, but the word carol gradually became associated with the songs and hymns sung during Advent and Christmas time.

It has not always been ‘respectable’ to sing Christmas carols in church let alone sing wassails. Indeed they were often seen as worldly and irreverent and not fit for the service of God.  In these days of broader tastes and a more relaxed approach to what can be sung in church, perhaps one would not be at all surprised if the church choir burst into a chorus of Roy Wood’s “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day” or even the ubiquitous Slade, both of which have a celebratory tone.

The survival and success of music for Christmas in churches has had a chequered and remarkable history. It came close to demise during the Civil War period following a Parliamentary order for the demolition of church organs on the 9th May 1644.  The Parliamentarians are unlikely to have been objecting to music itself, just its use in church which was seen as frivolous and irreverent.  After the Restoration the old music resurfaced in churches and in some places it had never been submerged. This revival included the singing of unaccompanied psalms and the formation of church bands and quires (choirs).  Old tunes were celebrated once again and new tunes were composed.  Organs gradually returned to churches too but many rural and city parishes couldn’t afford them so the church band and quire took its place. However, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the influence of the Oxford Movement made the organ the standard musical accompaniment once again, together with robed choirs who usually sat in the chancel.  Guildhall Library has books in its collections which can tell us more about this fascinating period.

One of the musical traditions which was all but lost during the late nineteenth century was revived toward the end of the twentieth – that of West Gallery Music.  It had been popular from the early 1700s to the mid-nineteenth century beginning with the singing of metrical psalms but later augmented with anthems and carols.  This music was usually performed in the West Gallery of country churches – hence the name.  The singers were usually male with each “voice” or part being led by an instrumentalist.


A pre-West Gallery strand of music making in church was reflected in John Playford’s “Whole Book of Psalms” published in 1677 (Guildhall Library holds an 18th century copy).  Collectors like Playford were important in the re-discovery and dissemination of pre-Commonwealth tunes.  Playford records a tune called “Winchester” for Psalm 107 “Give Thanks Unto the Lord”.


The melody will be more familiar to us as “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night,” the words to which are thought to have been written by Nahum Tate (1652 –1715) of Tate & Brady Psalms.  This may suggest that the association of Tate’s words with “Winchester” was quite new in Playford’s time.  During the later West Gallery period, Winchester was just one of many tunes for this favourite carol.  Collectors of these tunes have apparently identified at least two hundred tunes for “While Shepherds Watched,” including Lyngham (associated with Cornwall), Otford, and Cranbrook – written in Kent.  The latter is now better known as “On Ilkla Moor bar tat” why not try it…”and glory shone around, and glory shone around, and glo-ry shone around…”

The West Gallery tunes were sung in Anglican and Non-Conformist churches in country villages and towns.  As we have seen, different parishes and congregations had their own traditions and the words and tunes local usage.  Some churches preferred to sing metrical psalms only, such as “All People that on Earth do Dwell” (Psalm 100), whilst others had a broader repertoire.  In church the choirs often sang words based on biblical texts or the Book of Common Prayer, but they also learned Christmas carols to be sung not in church, but in their homes and for ‘going the rounds’ on Christmas night.

Some post Commonwealth parishes supported the work of the singers and musicians by employing singing teachers or purchasing musical instruments to accompany the singing when players were too poor to afford their own.  Players and singers were sometimes paid money or supplied with food and drink.   The music was handed down through families, many of whom created their own music manuscripts.  These local players often played for secular occasions too.

The rousing harmonies of West Gallery tunes were not unanimously welcomed, some parishes felt that traditional psalm tunes were better suited to the solemnity of a church service. There remained a suspicion of a tradition in which ordinary villagers led the service and that their singing and playing was not confined to or controlled by the church.  Others genuinely felt that it was better for the whole congregation to sing together rather than listen to a quire and musicians.  The church bands and choirs were gradually replaced by organists.

Guildhall Library’s collections offer an insight into the history of Christmas music sacred and secular.  In his preface to “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” (1823) Davies Gilbert looks back at a dying tradition…

“shadows of these customs were, till very lately, preserved in the Protestant West of England.  The day of Christmas Eve was passed in an ordinary manner; but at seven or eight o’clock in the evening cakes were drawn hot from the oven; cyder or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house; and the singing of Carols was continued late into the night.  On Christmas Day these Carols took the place of Psalms in all the Churches, especially at afternoon service, the whole Congregation joining; and at the end it was usual for the Parish Clerk to declare, in a loud voice, his wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all the Parishioners.” (Preface iv)

My own introduction to the joyous sound of West Gallery Music came through the work of Thomas Hardy whose father played in the West Gallery of the church at Stinsford, a village near Dorchester in West Dorset.  The County Museum houses the Hardy family’s music books with religious tunes at one end and secular ones at the other.  Hardy’s family memories inspired  some of his poems but above all his novel “Under the Greenwood Tree” which he subtitled “The Mellstock Quire, a Rural Painting of the Dutch school” (Guildhall Library reference B:H 272).  In that novel Hardy gives a fictional account of the quire ‘going the rounds’ on Christmas Eve and leading the singing in church on Christmas morning.  There is a poignant sense of loss at its eventual demise in favour of a single musician – the church organist.


When Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) published his collection of “Some Ancient Christmas Carols: with the Tunes to which they were Formerly Sung in the West of England. Together with Two Ancient Ballads, a Dialogue, &c” he was offering these songs to the reading public at a time when they were increasingly undervalued.
(Guildhall reference S 728:28 )

The collection includes this now lesser known carol “Hark! Hark! What News the Angels Bring”


And the better known “Christians Awake”


Gilbert also records the carol “A Virgin Most Pure” which is sometimes called “A Virgin Unspotted” (see Sandy’s “Christmastide: Its History, Festivities and Carols”) and gives the tune.  Sandys records it as a West Country tune but it has been popular in several English counties.    It seems that this carol had a secular origin.  Broadwood & Fuller Maitland in their “English Country Songs” (1893) tell us that the tune used was one called “Admiral Benbow” sung at Marden, near Hereford.  Sandys also records the words to “Remember Adam’s Fall” in his “Christmastide” which is sung by the Mellstock Quire in Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree”.


Gilbert “Some Ancient Christmas Carols”


William Sandys (1792-1874) gave the words of forty two Christmas songs and the music for twelve. He too was saddened that carol singing was dying out. He recorded “A Virgin Most Pure”, “Remember Adam’s Fall” as well as a carol which possibly dates back to the fourteenth century entitled “Joseph was an Old Man” also known as the “Cherry Tree Carol”

In his Diary entry for the 23rd January 1873 the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded going to hear a man recite this carol…

“This morning I found John Cozens at work on the lawn covering down one of the old flower beds, the one near the Deodar, between it and the limes. He fulfilled his promise of reciting to me the old Christmas Carol which the Wassailers and he as chief singer used to sing with the Wassailing song at Christmas. John leaned on his spade and I took this carol down word for word from his mouth.


Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
When first he courted Mary
What a virgin was she…”

“Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert” volume two, pages 312-314. Reference BK: 48.

Kilvert records twelve verses of the carol. Laurie Lee also records singing this carol in “Cider with Rosie”.


Thankfully West Gallery tunes are now easier for a modern day audience to experience owing to the dedication of singers, musicians and scholars who have performed and recorded them in recent years. In the Sheffield area the music has survived by moving it to the pub and during December people still sing the old carols with gusto over a pint.

In London we are fortunate to have the London West Gallery Quire so we do not have to head for the West Country or Yorkshire to hear these wonderful tunes.  There is a West Gallery Music Association where you can find articles about the music and details of concerts.  So let’s not be limited in our choice of Christmas music this year and celebrate our long and varied tradition of sacred and secular carols.

Jeanie Smith

Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection

The newsletter of the Friends of City Churches available in the library also lists carol services and concerts in the City.

Find out more about secular and sacred Christmas music in Guildhall Library’s collections:

Christmastide : its History, Festivities, and Carols [1852]

William Sandys

Reference S 394:2663


English Country Songs: Words and Music (1893)

Collected and Edited by Lucy E Broadwood & J A Fuller Maitland

Reference 782:4216221


Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs (1979)

Edited by Roy Palmer

Reference 782:4216221


Festive Songs, Principally of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries with an Introduction by William Sandys (1848)

Reference ST 271 (PERCY S; 77)


The Folk-Carol of England (1967)

Douglas Brice

Reference 782:28


Go West…

Christopher Turner

The Musical Times, Vol. 136, No. 1829 (Jul., 1995), pp. 380-383

Available via Jstor in the library


The Old Church Gallery Minstrels: An Account of the Church Bands and Singers in England from about 1660 to 1860

Canon K H MacDermott

Reference 783:8


Some Ancient Christmas Carols : with the Tunes to which they were Formerly Sung in the West of England. Together with two Ancient Ballads, a Dialogue, &c (1823)

Collected by Davies Gilbert.

Reference S 728:28


Specimens of Old Christmas Carols : Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books.

Thomas Wright (1810-1877)

Reference ST 271 (PERCY S; 16)


Under the Greenwood Tree

Thomas Hardy

Reference BH: 272


The Whole Book of Psalms (1757)

John Playford ; Joseph Fox

Reference AN 11.2.17


Witches, Witchcraft and Witch Trials

A few years ago we did a blog post about witches in Guildhall Library, this year for Halloween we’ve expanded further to look at our original primary sources on Witches, Witchcraft and Witch trials. One of the most interesting things about the books we hold on this topic is that most of the texts from the 17th and 18th centuries argued against the existence of witchcraft, even going so far as trying to prove that women who’d been tried and found guilty of witchcraft were not in fact witches.

The first few pamphlets were all published around 1711-1712 and look at one specific witchcraft trial, that of Jane Wenham of Hertfordshire. Like many women accused of witchcraft, Jane was old, poor and generally disliked by the people who knew her; which made it easy for them to suspect she was a witch.

A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft, practis’d by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire, upon the bodies of Ann Thorn, Anne Street, &c. The proceedings against her from her being first apprehended, till she was committed to gaol by Sir Henry Chavncy. Also her trial at the assizes at Hertford before Mr Justice Powell, where she was found guilty of felony and witchcraft, and received’d sentence of death for the same, March 4 1711-12.

Jane Wenham was one of the last, if not the last woman, to be sentenced to death as a witch in England. But thankfully her sentence wasn’t carried out. Queen Anne gave her a royal pardon and she was able to live out the rest of her life being looked after by the gentry. This pamphlet by Bagge lists all her crimes, and the examples used to convict her of witchcraft as they were given at her trial. As can be clearly be seen on the title page there is a quote from Exodus 22 v 18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” the verse that was responsible for many deaths.

The Case of the Hertfordshire witchcraft consider’d : being an examination of a book entitle’d A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft practis’d by Jane Wenham. 1712

A companion book to Bagge, this one takes the evidence that he was used to convict Jane Wenham of witchcraft and argues that she was not in fact a witch and offers more rational explanations for the events that were used for her conviction. Examples of things she was supposed to have done that proved she was a witch included causing a young girl to run a long way, have a boy collect straw, have cats appear with her face, not having memorised the Lord’s prayer and the more traditional killing of livestock (in this case sheep).

The impossibility of witchcraft : plainly proving from scripture and reason that there never was a witch; and that it is both irrational and impious to believe that there ever was  in which the depositions against Jane Wenham, lately try’d and condemn’d for a witch at Hertford are confuted and exposed. 1712

This pamphlet argues for the improbability of witchcraft (but does not support atheism) brought on by Jane Wendham’s conviction.  It was well argued and used many examples from the Bible, as well as Latin and Greek sources using the original language, and showing how mistakes in translations had brought about these errors in belief. It also discussed the ways in which “modern” witches differed from those in Biblical times saying how in the past witches were powerful but now they are all old and poor. It comes to the conclusion that there are not and never have been witches.

We hold few records  that deal with Witchcraft in London. This 1702 pamphlet recounts a trial, not for  witchcraft but of a man who had falsely accused a woman of witchcraft.

The tryal of Richard Hathaway : upon an information for being a cheat and imposter, for endeavouring to take away the life of Sarah Morduck, for being a vvitch, at Surry assizes, begun and held in the burrough of Southwark, March the 24th, 1702 …, to which is added a short account ofthe tryal of Richard Hathaway, Thomas Wellyn and Elizabeth his wife, and Elizabeth Willoughby, wife of Walter Willoughby, upon an information for a riot and assault upon Sarah Morduck, the pretended witch, at the said assizes. 1702.

Sarah Mordcock, from Southwark had been tried and found not guilty of witchcraft. After the verdict Richard, her chief accuser, was brought to trial for false charges.  In this document there is a lot of evidence given by people who thought he had actually been bewitched. One of the witnesses was a woman who claimed she had been bewitched as a child and reportedly flown, though she could provide no evidence for this as all that had seen her do it were now dead.

The question of witchcraft debated : Or a discourse against their opinion that affirm witches, considered and enlarged by John Wagstaffe 1671

This book starts from the very reassuring standpoint that just because one does not believe in Witchcraft one is necessarily an athiest.  It goes on to point out the problems with Latin translations of the Bible which have led to the belief in witches and provides a translation of the original Hebrew.  The author argues that the witches nowadays do not compare with those described as such in the past,  and that it is ridiculous to think that these poor, old women have such powers and abilities from the Devil.  For if that power existed would the Devil not now pick more influential people as he did in the past? The book concludes with a modern sounding message concerning the tens of thousands of people murdered and tortured to death because of the belief in witchcraft and the author hopes his own work will put a stop to this practice.

An historical essay concerning witchcraft : With observations upon matters of fact; tending to clear the texts of the sacred Scriptures, and confute the vulgar errors about that point. And also two sermons: one in proof of the Christian religion; the other concerning the good and evil angels By Francis Hutchinson. 1720

This work provides a very different argument against witchcraft.  Written by a clergyman it takes the form of a discussion or dialogue with someone asking questions and the ‘expert’ providing the answers. My favourite part is the list of all the historical witches and which includes Albertus Magnus, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, and Joan of Arc all on the same page!  It looks over some of the famous cases from the past, not just in England but in the USA and Europe.

At the opposite end  of the spectrum we also  have the most notorious  Malleus maleficarum by Jacob Sprenger and Henricus Institoris both in the original Latin from 1492 or 1494  and a later 20th century English translation by Montague Summers.

Melanie Strong, Assistant Librarian

The Discovery of Roman London

11 September – 5 January 2018

As part of the Londinium celebrations taking place across the City of London the Guildhall Library’s new exhibition looks at the Discovery of Roman London. It was only in the early 19th century that Londoners with an interest in history realised that large parts of Roman London could have survived under the modern streets of their City and that it might be possible to actively search for the archaeological evidence. This exhibition looks at the early pioneers of Roman London archaeology who often acquired objects straight from building sites in the City. The exhibition contains items from the Guildhall Library’s collections and archaeological artefacts from the Museum of London’s collections.

The exhibition focuses on several notable businessmen who became experts in the field of Roman London archaeology. Charles Roach Smith (1806-1890) ran a chemist’s shop in Lothbury. He was one of the founders of the British Archaeological Association. He became interested in the history of London because of the excavations taking place around his shop in the City of London. As the City underwent a period of vast building and renovation its previous layers were uncovered. Charles Roach Smith collected artefacts from the building sites to further his research on the Roman city. He wrote extensively about his discoveries and became one of the leading experts on Roman London of the 19th century. These artefacts made up his own private museum which was featured in several publications of the time. He would host private tours to those interested. When he moved out of London he sold his large collection to the British Museum where many of the objects are still on display today. Featured in the exhibition display cabinets are copies of Roach Smith’s Illustrations of Roman London alongside Roman artefacts from the Museum of London.

John Walker Baily (1809-1873) was senior partner in a successful company of Ironmongers. The family had close ties with the Guildhall as when his father ran the company they had provided the iron gates for the Basinghall Street entrance. Featured in the exhibition is Baily’s beautifully illustrated manuscript catalogue of the 400 objects which made up his collection of Roman and Medieval antiquities. When Baily died they became part of the collections of the Guildhall Museum. Today the antiquities are part of the collections of the Museum of London and the catalogue remains at Guildhall Library as part of the records of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers.

At the same time that these collectors were acquiring their artefacts the City Corporation was becoming increasingly interested in displaying artefacts relating to the history of London.  In 1826 the Guildhall Museum was established to provide, “A suitable place for the reception of such Antiquities as relate to the City of London and Suburbs”.  However, the museum didn’t open its doors to the public until decades later when appropriate museum space and collections had been acquired.  The exhibition features a photo-wall display of images from the Guildhall Museum from it’s opening in 1873 through to its closure in 1976 when it merged with the London Museum to become the Museum of London.  Artefacts from the Guildhall Museum can still be seen today in the Museum of London’s galleries.

Many events associated with the exhibition have already sold out but there are still tickets available for the following:

Later Roman London and the End of Roman Britain

Thursday 12 October 2017 18:00 – 20:00

London was the capital city of Britannia. It governed a territory which in the South and the East was a fully functioning part of the Roman Empire, but to the North and West was a militarised border region. This far flung territory of Rome changed over time, and eventually slipped out of the Imperial control. In this talk Simon Elliott tells the tale of Roman London from the ‘Crisis of the 3rd Century’ until its final demise in the early 5th century.

Everyday Life in Roman London

Thursday 2 November 2017 18:00 – 20:00

In this lecture Simon Elliott will narrate a day in the life of a wide variety of Roman Londoners in the mid 2nd century AD when the city was at its height during the Roman occupation. He will lift the lid on every aspect of day to day living in the city during the Roman period, from every perspective in society, showing how some things were very similar to our experiences today, but some things very different.

Empire State: How the Roman Military Built an Empire

Thursday 7 December 2017 18:00 – 20:00

The armed forces of Rome are regarded as some of the finest military formations ever to engage in warfare. Less well known however is their use by the State for non-military activities. In his new book ‘Empire State: How the Roman Military Built an Empire’, Simon Elliott considers this for the first time, showing how the military were utilised in a wide variety of civilian roles. These included helping administer and police the Empire, being the main resource used in construction and engineering projects, running industry such as metalla mining and quarrying, and participating in agricultural activity.

Melanie Strong, Assistant Librarian


As one wanders through our stacks, reflecting upon 276 years of maritime history, one can also stumble across some musical gems on a maritime theme. Guildhall Library holds the Lloyd’s Marine Collection, but sea shanties and sea songs are both represented in the library’s resources.

Sea songs were more often sung ashore, occasionally by sailors home from sea, but frequently by land lubbers. These songs often celebrated a great victory or the bravery of a particular Captain. A renowned writer of these sailor songs was Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). Some tell of the “delights” of a life at sea and one wonders what real sailors thought of those doubtful pleasures. Some sea songs were sung aboard ship e.g. – forecastle songs, reflecting where the singing took place. Hugill (in “Shanties and Sailor Songs”) tells us that some forecastle (fo’c’sle/forebitter) songs were popular with the Navy and Merchant Navy.

Shanties (said to be from the French chantez or chanter) were practical work songs, sung not for leisure and enjoyment, but during very heavy work indeed e.g. – the words and repetitions of halyard shanties helped the men to haul together. Shanties were sung in the Merchant rather than the British Navy where work was carried out without musical encouragement.

One of the library’s musical treasures is “Real Sailor Songs: Collected and Edited by John Ashton”. It was published by the Leadenhall Press in 1891. Both writer and publisher offer interesting areas for study. Historian and member of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers, John Ashton, was a ballad collector who drew on the broadsheets in his possession for his publications. He was aiming to bring the best of the texts he had collected to a wider public. In his preface, Ashton commented that at time of publication, sea songs were mostly sung in the music halls saying “I have omitted the whole of Dibdin’s, as they were songs for Sailors, but not necessarily Sailors’ Songs”.

His earlier publication “A Century of Ballads” (1887) included eighty broadsides from the seventeenth century. His “Modern Street Ballads” (1888) drew on later sources from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ashton made use of the woodcut illustrations from the original broadsides in his possession, but he rearranged them, attaching them to different songs, pointing out that in the original broad sheets the illustration often bore little relevance to the words beneath.

Ashton divided his volume of sailor songs into those about sea fights, the press-gang, disaster, life ashore, love, and finally a miscellaneous section.  Several of the songs recorded by Ashton have a London theme e.g. “Meg of Wapping” is about landlady who cheerfully gains and loses six husbands.  He also records “The Jolly Sailor” or “The Lady of Greenwich” in which a well to do lady falls in love with our hero sailor and showers adoration and wealth upon him.  This enables him to return from the sea for good.

Other London songs recorded are “The Greenwich Pensioner”, “Bonny Shadwell Dock” and “Ratcliffe Highway in 1842”….

“You jovial sailors, one and all,

When you in the port of London call,

Mind Ratcliffe Highway, and the damsels loose,

The William, the Bear, and the Paddy’s Goose”

There are several versions of these songs but a common tale is the unfortunate sailor who comes ashore at Wapping, wages in pocket, meets and gets drunk with a woman who then robs him.  The woman is sometimes described as a “flash packet” and the lyrics are filled with double entendre.  There are versions in which the sailor steals something from the woman in return.  Hugill thinks that songs celebrating the delights of being ashore are probably genuine sea songs.  He calls Ashton’s book “The first genuine attempt to bring together sailor come-all-yous, forebitters and ballads, in one book.”

Publisher of the Ashton book, The Leadenhall Press, was founded by Andrew White Tuer (1838–1900) of Field & Tuer. The firm began at the Minories in 1862, principally as a printing and stationery business, but Tuer drove the business toward a fuller range of printing techniques and the production of books. In 1868 Field and Tuer moved to 50 Leadenhall Street and by the 1880s they were printing a wide range of volumes including children’s books and limited editions. They had also developed a reputation for reproducing art works. They worked with artists such as Burne-Jones Joseph Crawhall, Randolph Caldecott, and Punch cartoonists Phil May, Charles Keene and Linley Sambourne. To find out more about the publications of the Leadenhall Press see “Field & Tuer, The Leadenhall Press: A Checklist” by Matthew McLennan Young.

The work of Charles Dibdin is also represented in the library’s collections. Dibdin was an actor, composer and writer from Southampton who moved to London. He became part of Garrick’s Drury Lane Company and composed for them. His only experience of life at sea came from his brother’s seafaring career and perhaps his own journey to France to escape his creditors. He wrote several popular sea songs including “Blow High, Blow Low” “‘Twas in the good ship Rover” and above all “Tom Bowling” (suggesting the bowline, an important sailor’s knot) from a character in Smollett’s “Roderick Random”. “Tom Bowling” is often played on the Last Night of the Proms. Dibdin’ s songs had a strong patriotic flavour and were taken up by the British Navy in time of war. During the Napoleonic Wars his version of “Britons Strike Home” (1803) led to his being awarded a government pension.

Guildhall Library holds a copy of “Songs, Naval and National, of the Late Charles Dibdin, a Collection Arranged by Thomas Dibdin with Sketches by George Cruikshank”. His work was much admired by Charles Dickens who kept a copy of this in his library.

In 1889 a memorial to Dibdin was erected by public subscription which has a verse from “Tom Bowling” inscribed upon it. This gives a flavour of Dibdin’s style and demonstrates the marked difference between the sailor songs collected by Ashton and those written by Dibdin:
“His form was of the manliest beauty,
His heart was kind and soft,
Faithful, below, he did his duty;
But now he’s gone aloft.”
Other memorials to Dibdin are at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich and at Holyrood Church in Southampton.

Jeanie Smith, Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection

Find out more at Guildhall Library

JPT Bury  “A W Tuer and the Leadenhall Press” in Book Collector 36.2 (Summer 1987):225-243.

Roy Palmer (ed.) Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs reference (1979) reference 782.4216221

Stan Hugill Shanties and Sailors’ Songs  (1969) reference 782.421595

Stan Hugill Shanties from the Seven Seas (1961) reference 782.421595

Oxford Book of Sea Songs chosen and edited by Roy Palmer (1986) reference S782.421595

Matthew McLennan Young Field and Tuer, The Leadenhall Press (2010) reference SL 07.1

John Ashton Modern Street Ballads (1888) reference S 821:04

John Ashton Real Sailor Songs (1891) reference AN 11.4.2

T Dibdin Songs of the Late Charles Dibdin, with a Memoir (1864) reference B:D 544

Dibden’s Humourous Budget of Sea Songs. Vol. 1. [1790] reference pam 1275

John Braham  Braham’s Whim: or, Songster’s Delight : Comprising all the Modern Fashionable and Sea Songs now Singing at the Theatres of London (1812) reference pam 6170

Lady Jane Grey – Famous Trials at Guildhall

I’m Thomas; I am currently a placement student from the City of London academy working at Guildhall Library. This is a piece of research I did on some of the famous trials that have taken place at Guildhall.

The Guildhall is a key part of the modern day City of London and it also holds great historical and social importance. Essentially the town hall for the City of London it has also played host to many historic trials in its near thousand year history. Some of the more famous trials happened during the Tudor period and include the trial of Lady Jane Grey, Anne Askew and Thomas Cranmer.

Lady Jane Grey

The trial of Lady Jane Grey, otherwise known as the Nine Day Queen, was probably the most famous trial to take place at the Guildhall. As Edward VI was dying of consumption (today we know it as tuberculosis), he and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his most trusted advisor, wanted to keep the country Protestant and they knew when Edward died the throne would go to his half-sister Mary who was strongly catholic. As a result Edward named his cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, as heir to the English throne. So when Edward died, Jane was named queen of England, Wales and Ireland on 10th July 1553. But, as her ‘nickname’ suggests, she was only Queen for nine days, not even long enough to be officially crowned.

Mary turned out to have a very large following of both Catholics and people who believed a Tudor queen should sit on the throne and not a Dudley. So nine days after Jane was named Queen by the council, Mary rode into the City of London and was in turn proclaimed Queen. Jane was arrested, along with her husband Lord Guildford Dudley and members of her council including Thomas Cranmer. On 13th November 1553 she and her co-conspirators where marched from the Tower of London where they were being held, to Guildhall to be tried by special commission. On her journey, Jane was stated to have worn all black whilst holding an open prayer book, which was meant to represent protestant piety.

Once at Guildhall, they were all accused of high treason, or more specifically Jane, Guildford and Cranmer were charged with taking possession of the tower and proclaiming Jane as Queen. Jane was also accused of ‘signing various writings’. The commission was led by Sir Thomas White, the then Lord Mayor of London and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard. They were all charged with high treason and sentenced to death. The men where to be executed by being hung, drawn and quartered, whilst Jane would be burnt at the stake or beheaded. They were then marched back to the tower.

Although, as time went on, it appeared that Mary would spare Jane as no date was announced for her execution. This was sadly not to last. On January 26th 1554 Thomas Wyatt as well as other nobles, including Jane’s father the Duke of Suffolk lead a rebellion against Mary over her very unpopular decision to marry Phillip II of Spain as well as over political and theological concerns. Whilst Jane was not directly involved she was becoming a ‘security risk’, and so, bowing to  pressure from her council Mary scheduled Jane’s and her husband’s execution for 12th February 1554 when she was beheaded at the Tower of London.

Lloyd’s Register Ship Plan and Survey Report Collection: The London Port Boxes and Project Undaunted

I work for the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and would like to share some exciting findings from our current project with you all. The Heritage & Education Centre in London has a specialist marine science and engineering library and archive. In addition to our main holdings, we also have the Lloyd’s Register (LR) ship plan and survey report collection dating from 1834 to the 1960s. This is an extensive collection in excess of 65,000 ships with an estimated 1.25 million items.

We have embarked on an ambitious venture to make 10% of this collection more accessible to the public. The records themselves are globally significant and unique and until now have been little utilised. We have a great team in place with our cataloguers Miles, Sarah and Eloisa, as well as our conservator Nicole, all working under the guidance of our Curator of Maritime Heritage & Education, Barbara Jones. It is thanks to their hard work that we will have some of this great material to share with you at my talk on 5 June (free talk, book via:

To get a feel for what is there we will launch with a look at some first and famous ships – those of significant design, technological advance and historic importance, or just ones that everyone has heard of! Vessels like the Cutty Sark, the Queen Mary, Carpathia and Fullagar.

A product of ship classification, the archives were created during the survey of ships and there are a total of 1,756 reports in the first three London port boxes alone. I have conducted some initial analysis of these to show the potential of the collection, but there is far more that can be done with the material by researchers with a wide range of possibilities. For example, if someone is interested in researching a particular place or country of build, or if they want to see the destined voyages of vessels or totals for a time period then the data can be used for these ends. Equally if they are interested in individual ships then these can also be examined.

Key places of build are evident from analysis of the London port boxes such as Sunderland, London, Hull, Newcastle and Aberdeen. Interestingly many of these places also feature as Coats of Arms on the exterior of our building and on the ceiling of the Old Library in our office at 71 Fenchurch Street. The ceiling, decorated by Shrigley and Hunt in 1901, was commissioned to represent the major shipbuilding centres at the time. As an aside – if anyone is interested in seeing the ceiling in person then you are welcome to join us during London Open House on Saturday 16 September when our offices will be open to the public.

The digitisation project itself has been named ‘Project Undaunted’ after the first survey report prepared for the re-constituted society, London no.1, belonging to the barque Undaunted. The survey was carried out by LR surveyor Nathaniel Middleton on 1 July 1834. This has turned out to be a very apt title!

We have some great characters in our long LR history – surveyors like George Bayley – who took exception to a shipowner that offered him a bribe. I hope that you can join me on 5 June to find out what happened next!

By: Louise Sanger, Heritage & Education Centre Deputy Manager, Lloyd’s Register Foundation