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.
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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.
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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) https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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

https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries/Pages/guildhall-art-gallery.aspx

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. https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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.”
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/zoom-item?i=25660&WINID=1512122410854

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)
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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) https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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. https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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) https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

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:
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB. Their email address is ask.lma@cityoflondon.gov.uk and their website can be found at www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/lma

London Metropolitan Archives currently has a digital exhibition entitled Frozen London:
https://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/gallery?i=233612&WINID=1512476180413

Guildhall Library
Aldermanbury
London
EC2V 7HH
Telephone: 020 7332 1868 or 1870
Visit our Website at www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhalllibrary
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