24th November 1434 - The author B. Lambert wrote in his book ‘The History and Survey of London and its Environs’, published in 1806, “In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th November and held until the 10th February, following; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandises and provisions into the mouth of the said river were unladen and brought by land to the city.”
The earliest instance recorded of the Thames freezing over was in 250AD when it was frozen for 9 weeks. It froze for 13 weeks in 923 and again in the reign of King Stephen in 1150. The only way to cross the Thames from London on the north bank to Southwark in the south was by a ferry or an old wooden bridge. This kept being destroyed by fire so in 1176 Henry II commissioned a new one to be made of stone. It took 33 years to build but was to last o
ver 600 years. 275 metres long it was supported on 20 arches. On it were an array of shops, houses, a chapel, a mill and a waterwheel. One of the consequences of this building was that as debris or ice got lodged between the pillars holding up the arches it acted like a dam and slowed down the flow of the river making it more possible for it to freeze over. Between 1400 and 1835 there were 24 winters in which the Thames was said to have frozen over. In 1536 Henry VIII travelled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh and in 1564 Queen Elizabeth I took part in some archery on the Thames. The period from 1600 to 1814 was later to be known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ and the river could be frozen for up to 2 months.
Between 1600 and 1814 when the Thames froze there were 7 major fairs that took place on the ice and plenty of smaller ones. These were called Frost Fairs and were organised by the boatmen of the Thames who could not earn while the river was frozen. On the Thames were hastily constructed shops, pubs, ice rinks and everything else you would find on the streets of London. In 1607, during the first of these fairs, you could walk from Southwark to the City. Football pitches were set up, bowling matches took place and shoemakers set up their stalls. Houses were made out of sails propped up by oars. They even had fires in the tents to keep them warm.
The diarist, John Evelyn, said of the fair in 1683/4 that, “The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press.” This particular fair has become known as the ‘Blanket Fair’ when even the sea of southern Britain froze for two miles. Evelyn tells us that there was bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and drinking which gave it a Bacchanalian air like a ‘Carnival on the water’. Charles II was even said to have enjoyed a spit-roasted ox. A printer, called Croom, sold souvenir cards printed with your name, date and the fact that it was printed on the Thames. The firm made a fortune and Charles II is said to have purchased one of these.
It has been said that these fairs resembled a mixture of a Christmas market, a circus and an illegal rave. Today the Health and Safety executive would never allow it, the police would be looking for drugs and other illegal substances as well as arresting people for disturbances and questions would be asked in the House. Back then the boatmen regulated what happened and acted as police, judge and jury.
By the 1800s the climate started to warm and January 1814 saw the last of these fairs. George III was on the throne, Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister and the war with Napoleon was nearly over. This fair included a parading elephant alongside Blackfriars Bridge, skittles, drinking tents, tea and coffee houses, gingerbread sellers selling cups of gin, tents selling toys and books and others sitting round fires drinking rum. Temporary pubs had names like “The City of Moscow” and the atmosphere was a frenzied drinking scene. Some of the establishments were called “Fuddling tents”.
In 1831 a new London Bridge was built with fewer arches allowing the water to move more freely. Later in the nineteenth century the new embankment was built which narrowed the Thames making the water flow more quickly. These two actions meant that the freezing over of the Thames and thus the fairs became a thing of the past. The Thames did freeze again in 1962/3 in what has been called the ‘Big Freeze’ when a man rode his bike on the river near Windsor Bridge. However the ice was not strong enough or the freeze long enough to allow the sort of activities that had been seen earlier. The year 1814 was the 3rd coldest since records began in 1659 with an average of -2.9°C. The closest we have come to that was the cold winter of 2010 when the average was 1.4°C.
Under the south bank of Southwark Bridge is an engraving that contains an inscription saying:
“Behold the Liquid Thames 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 see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done.
I can remember the fun I had skating on a canal when I was young in the 1970s but never a river. It must have been quite a scene and atmosphere and showed the true London spirit by making the most out of the situation they found themselves in; a spirit that was recaptured during the Blitz of World War 2.