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The Frost Fairs

On exceptionally cold winters the River Thames used to freeze over between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge and Londoners used to take to the ice for all manners of activities.

And it wasn't just the ordinary Londoners who enjoyed a good Frost Fair - royalty, including Charles II and Queen Elizabeth I, could be seen practising archery and target shooting amidst the crowds and carnival atmosphere that bought a wealth of life to the frozen Thames. The scene at Bankside was described by 17th century diarist John Evelyn as ‘a Bacchanalian triumph of carnival on the water'.

So what when on at the original Frost Fairs?

Food and Souvenir Stalls

The fairs were a prime opportunity for traders to sell their wares and stalls were set up on the ice selling souvenir trinkets and children's toys, all labelled up for the occasion as having been ‘bought on the Thames'. Hawkers sold a variety of foods including spiced buns, hot pudding pies, spiced apples, gingerbread, nuts and fruit. There were also spectacles such as the roasting of a sheep or an ox. *Behold the wonder of this present age / A frozen river now becomes a stage Question not what I now do close to you / The Thames is now both fair and market too'. - printed by M. Haly and J. Miller, 1684.

Tavern Booths

Tavern booths were also set up selling mulled cider, wine, ale, whiskey, brandy as well as tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Customers of these taverns would be welcomed with the greeting ‘What lack ye Sir? Beer, ale or brandy', knowing that here popular wisdom allowed for the fact that ‘...folk do tipple without fear to sink / More liquor than the fish beneath do drink' and often entertained by fire-eaters, jugglers, and sword swallowers.

Sports and Theatre

London apprentices would be running and sliding on the ice at ‘an increment of velocity' while others would be drawn along the frozen Thames by their companions, on large sledges of ice. Those more ‘expert in the amusements of the ice' placed the leg-bones of animals under their feet and, having tied them in place with straps around their ankles and found themselves an iron staff, were able to ski across the ice ‘at a velocity equal to the fight of a bird, or bolt discharged from a cross-bow'.

When iron skates were introduced from Holland in 1667, all manor of sports - including bowls for ladies of quality, throwing-at-a-c*ck ‘for the crude hearted roughs', football, hockey and horse and donkey racing, for all - were ready to take to the ice.

Stilt-walkers, musicians, singers and travelling theatres promenaded across the ice that at its deepest was 11 inches thick.

There were also boats on wheels and ice-bound boats bedecked with flags.

Printing

There was good business to be done as a printer, with the prospect of earning £6 a day, a princely sum. As amongst the largely illiterate public there continued to be much enthusiasm for the verse that came out of adversity and for having their names printed for posterity.

You that walk here, and do desyn to tell / Your children's children what this year befell / Go print your names and take a dram within / For such a year as this, has seldom been seen - 1814

Here you PRINT your name tho' cannot write / ...numbe'd with cold: ‘Tis done with great delight / And say it by; That AGES yet to come / May see what THINGS upon the ICE were done - Jan. 29th 1740

A certain G. Crook was making his claim to fame, and indeed a very good living, by printing off commemorative sheets ‘on the ICE on the River Thames' that listed the names of more illustrious visitors, including James Duke of York (later James II), his daughter Princess Anne (subsequently to become Queen) Queen Catherine, Infanta of Portugal and Prince George of Denmark.

Later, in the early nineteenth century, there were ten printing presses out on the river - printing and publishing whole books such as G.Davis' small book of 5th February ‘Frostiana A History of The River Thames in a frozen state'.

Dangers of the Ice

The Frost Fair's weren't all fun - many Londoners fell over and broke their limbs or fell through the ice and drowned. Known as ‘The Institute for affording immediate relief to persons apparently dead from drowning', the Icemen of The Royal Humane Society were established to deal with the realities of those who fell through the ice.

Meanwhile, it took twenty-five horses and vast quantities of water to break the ice at London Bridge each morning and get the water wheels turning.

The ice was also a disaster for the port, as ships could not enter the Upper Pool. Those whose livelihoods depended on the port found themselves out of work. As trade ground to a halt, coal and many other goods became scarce. In 1739-40 the Lord Mayor was forced to launch an appeal to help those affected by the big freeze.

The Last Frost Fair

But the last great Frost Fair of Old was held in 1814 due to the milder winters, the dismantling of the old London Bridge whose many wooden posts had stemmed the flow of the river, and the draining of river-side marshes serving to increase the flow of the Thames.

Modern Day

The Frost Fair no longer takes place in Bankside, but an exhibition can be seen at Shakespeare's Globe

SOURCES: Frosts, Freezes & Fairs - Ian Currie, 2006; The Story of Bankside - Leonare Reilly & Geoff Marshall, 2001