Between the 13th and the 19th centuries, the northern hemisphere was in the grip of a “Little Ice Age”. Temperatures dropped worldwide as summers became cold and wet while winters became colder, long and harsh.
In the Swiss Alps encroaching glaciers destroyed farmlands and villages. Canals and rivers in Great Britain and the Netherlands froze up frequently hampering navigation. Greenland was largely cut off by sea ice for three hundred years. With failing crops, many Norse colonies in Greenland starved to death and disappeared.
While famine and death became common across Europe, people also started taking advantage of the cold weather. Frozen ponds and rivers became impromptu ice skating rinks, and outdoor winter sports became popular pastime activities.
A Frost Fair on the River Thames in the winter of 1683-84, by Thomas Wyke.
In London, even the mighty River Thames froze. According to historical data, between the 17th and the early 19th centuries, the River Thames froze for nearly two dozen times. During Britain’s worst recorded frost, in the winter of 1683–84, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with ice up to a foot thick.
For Londoners, the freezing of the river was an event to be celebrated. As soon as the ice was thick enough to bear weight, peddlers would hastily construct tents out of sail cloth and oars to sell everything from souvenirs, to food and drinks, to haircuts. One person even setup a printing press on the ice and published a 124-page book. Activities and entertainment at frost fairs ranged from bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays, sledging, nine-pin bowling and more. An eyewitness for the 1683–84 frost fair reported revelers roasting a whole ox on top of a roaring fire. Even the Royal family took part in the fairs. The same eyewitness reported King Charles and the Queen partaking the aforementioned roasted ox.
The frost fair that occurred in the winter of 1683–84 was the most celebrated, and there are many written accounts of the event. The famous English diarist John Evelyn described the fair in extensive details:
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cookes, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not onely splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers[e] places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in.
The frost fairs on River Thames were often brief, lasting not more than a couple of days. For some reason the fairs were usually held during the last leg of winter before the ice began to thaw. During the fair of 1739, a whole swathe of ice gave away and swallowed up tents and people. In January 1789, the ice melted too fast and dragged a ship which was anchored to a riverside public house, pulling the building down and causing five people to be crushed to death.
By the 1800’s the climate started to warm and the severity of the winters waned. The Thames no longer froze enough for fairs to be held. The last frost fair took place in 1814, and thousands of people turned up to see a full-grown elephant walk across the frozen river.
The demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831 and construction of a new one also contributed to the ice-free Thames. The medieval London Bridge and its piers were spaced quite close together and during winter pieces of ice would get lodged against the piers, effectively damming up the river and making it easier to freeze. Once Thames’s new embankment was ready, the river began to flow more freely and the days of the frozen Thames were consigned to history.
Most souvenirs sold at the fairs were just regular trinkets and toys labeled “bought on the Thames” and sold at double or treble the original price. This piece of gingerbread was bought on the Thames.
The frost fair of 1684.
The Frost Fair of 1683.