Today it is a pleasure to welcome historian Toni Mount to History…the Interesting Bits, with an article on the Frost Fairs on the River Thames.
Anyone who was in the UK, Ireland or much of Europe in February and March 2018 will probably remember the weather phenomenon of anticyclone Hartmut, better known as ‘The Beast from the East’. The Beast began its onslaught on 22nd February, bringing heavy snowfall and unusually low temperatures which lasted into the first week of March. Across Europe, it caused 95 deaths, seventeen of them in the UK. The deepest snowfall in England was 22 inches [57 cm] in Gloucestershire. The lowest temperature, measured in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland was -14℃ [7℉] with winds up to 70 mph [110 km/hr]. Two weeks of such intense cold weather is unusual in the UK today, though who knows what may lie ahead in the future with the effects of climate change. However, climate change is nothing new. The lifetime of Isaac Newton, from 1642 to 1727, saw far worse winter weather during ‘The Little Ice-Age’, as it is known, and the period from December 1683 to March 1684 saw an unprecedented cold spell in England.
Thermometers were a recent invention and a universal scale of temperature readings had yet to be established but descriptions of the thickness of ice formed on ponds in a single night suggest the long spell of exceptional freezing weather was worse than any winter before and has still to be surpassed. December 1683 began with a hard frost, followed by a bitter east wind laden with snow. In London, the snow melted on the 7th but a sharp frost on the 12th was succeeded by a week of heavy snowfall and a north-easterly wind. Places other than London suffered similarly. Bristol suffered badly on the 19th; Durham on Christmas Eve and Oxford had its worst snow on Christmas Day, although London only saw snow showers that day.
The previous October 1683 had seen temperatures more than 4°F below the average, so the ground was already colder than normal when the bad weather began in December. Daily thermometer readings – however inaccurate – were recorded by Dr John Downes in London. According to him, the greatest cold occurred on 15th-16th January when ‘the spirit fell within the ball’ of his thermometer so gave no reading. His thermometer probably hung indoors, close to a window was the usual position for such instruments, suggesting a likely reading of 25°F indoors when he took note of it, mid‐morning. This would probably indicate a temperature of below 10°F outdoors. It was almost as cold in the first days of February.
In Durham, farther north in Teesdale, a fellow scientist, Mr Sanderson, made occasional records of the thickness of ice formed ‘where John Aislaby gets his water, on 12th-13th February, ice formed two inches thick overnight’. He then adds ‘it was in my gazette [newspaper] that at the Downs [part of the English Channel off the coast of Kent] the water was frozen a mile into the Sea, which was never known before’. This occurred during the latter part of January. From other sources we learn that, for fourteen days, in the English Channel, packet‐boats with the mail could not leave the Belgian coast and that ‘the sea was frozen for two leagues off Caen [in Normandy, France]’. Near Manchester, Sanderson noted, ‘it did freeze ice more than half a yard thick, and some ice continued till 25th March’.
Undeterred by the cold, the people of Leeds in Yorkshire held a frost fair on the frozen River Aire. According to Ralph Thoresby, an ox-roast was set up there and various sporting activities organised. January saw no improvement and in the south, by the end of the month, the Thames estuary was frozen a mile out to sea and wagons were hauling goods downriver from London as far as Gravesend in Kent.
In London, John Evelyn’s diary provides a wealth of information, noting that brewers and other tradesmen reliant on a water supply were out of work because all the pipes were frozen. He was greatly concerned that:
The fowls, fish and birds and all our plants and greens universally perishing. Many parks of deer are destroyed and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive. … London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of sea-coal that one could hardly see across the streetes… and no one could scarcely breathe.
Evelyn also tells us that ‘every moment was full of disastrous accidents’ and trees were being cracked asunder by the frost as if by a lightning strike. Despite these gloomy realities, Londoners made the best of the weather conditions. A broadsheet of the time calls it ‘Great Britain’s Wonder or London’s Admiration: a prodigious frost which began about the beginning of December and continued till the fourth day of February following’. The Thames had frozen over before but never had the freeze lasted so long. The river ice was more than a foot thick [30cms] enabling it to be crossed by coach, carriage, sledge or on foot. Enterprising boatmen, robbed of their livelihood otherwise, put wheels under their boats to ferry passengers across the river. By 1st January, a fair and marketplace had been set up on the ice.
King Charles II and members of the royal court visited the makeshift town, enjoying eating meat from an ox-roast, taking part in a fox-hunt on ice and having souvenir cards printed in a booth where a printer had set up his press. The cards proved popular, the printer reckoning to make at least £5 per day at sixpence a time. In other words, he was printing around 200 cards every day and making an excellent income from his ingenuity. Food stalls sold everything from pancakes to roast beef and there were numerous taverns, goldsmiths’ shops, a toy shop, coffee-houses, a lottery booth, a music booth and even a brothel: all doing a brisk trade on ice. A circus was put on by Mr Chipperfield: the first known performance of a family business that still continues today, if in a very different health-and-safety, animal-welfare conscious, twenty-first-century format. No such niceties concerned the entrepreneurs who arranged the bull- and bear-baiting spectacles either.
John Evelyn wrote that:
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple… to and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes [skates], a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes [short dramatic sketches], cooks, tippling [drinking] and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or a carnival on water.
Others noted sporting activities, including football and skittles being played. The ice began to thaw a little on 4th-5th February and the booths began to be dismantled but it froze again so that Evelyn could still cross in his coach to Lambeth Palace to dine with the Archbishop of Canterbury. On other occasions, he walked upriver on the ice from his home in Deptford.
In Newton’s long lifetime the Thames would freeze over again in 1709 but the ice did not last so long as to allow another frost fair that year. However, the winter of 1715-16 was sufficiently severe and long-lasting that the river was frozen for almost three months and a fair was set up once more. On this occasion, there was far more snow than in 1683-84, ‘vast quantities fallen at different times in the season’, so that London was described at the time as being ‘almost impassable’.
Below, is an excerpt from a poem written in 1684:
BEHOLD the Wonder of this present Age,
A Famous RIVER now becomes a Stage.
Question not what I now declare to you,
The Thames is now both Fair and Market, too.
And many Thousands dayly do resort,
There to behold the Pastime and the Sport
Early and Late, used by young and old,
And valu’d not the fierceness of the Cold….
Back in history, the Thames had been frozen before. For example, in the reign of King Stephen, in 1150, ‘after a very wet summer there was in December so great a frost that horses and carriages crossed it [the Thames] upon the ice as safely as upon the dry ground, and that the frost lasted till the following month of March’. Again, in 1281, the Thames was frozen over and when the ice broke up at last, it carried away five of the stone arches of London Bridge, causing it to partially collapse and making this entrance into the city impassable until it was repaired. In 1434, ‘the Thames was so strongly frozen over, that merchandise and provisions brought into the mouth of the river were obliged to be unladen, and brought by land to the city’. In 1515, too, carriages passed over on the ice from Lambeth to Westminster and once more, when the ice melted a number of arches of London Bridge were ‘borne downe and carried away with the streame’. On the 21st of December 1564, during a lengthy hard frost, football and ‘shooting at marks’ were played on the Thames. Courtiers came from Whitehall Palace to mix with common citizens and watch the fun. Tradition says that Queen Elizabeth I herself walked upon the ice but all was gone by 5th January. However, Londoners had the chance to play all manner of sports and visit trading stalls on the river again in 1620, in the reign of James I.
The River Thames last iced over completely, enough to hold a Frost Fair on its frozen waters, in 1814 but, since then, the building of the Victoria and Albert Embankments has made it faster-flowing and less likely to ice up. However, it partially froze in the harsh winters of 1947 and 1963.
Who can say whether or not even more extreme weather events may happen in the future as a result of climate change? Only time may tell if another Frost Fair, like those experienced by Isaac Newton and his colleagues, will ever be held again on the Thames.
The World of Isaac Newton by Toni Mount
For nine decades Isaac Newton strode the world of science and discovery, religion and thought – from 17th century Lincolnshire farm-boy to one of the most influential scientists of all time – his discoveries have relevance for us today and for our future. This fascinating new biography looks at his world, his times, the people he influenced and the breakthroughs in science and thought that would change the world.
About the Author
Toni Mount’s first career was in science, leading to many years in a second profession in teaching. Her love of history led to a third career as a writer with her first book, released by Amberley Publishing in 2014, Everyday Life in Medieval London. She continues to teach history to adults both in person and online and has now written many successful non-fiction and fiction books. This latest study allows her to return to her first love, science, and the chance to bring a fresh look at one of the world’s most famous characters.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.
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©2020 Toni Mount
Great article, Toni! I can’t imagine the experience for people to witness such an event as the freezing of the Thames. Not something most people saw in their lifetime, but some were lucky (?) enough to see every so often.
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