Days may be shorter, trees are bare and the sensation of sun on your skin is a distant memory, yet winter in London remains uniquely wonderful. There’s the festive lead-up, the jumper revival, pub coziness and general merriment. However, there have been a few odd occurrences across the decades that made the cooler months all the more memorable.
When, in centuries past, London was hit by severe wintery weather it was possible for the Thames to freeze so hard that the city’s traders could hold fairs on the ice (it had a lot to do with London Bridge, which at the time had 19 stone arches that slowed the flow of the water). Such events were known as Frost Fairs. The first recorded fair was held in 1564, when the frozen river filled with stalls, sideshows and unexpected attractions like merry-go-rounds and donkey races. The freeze could last up to two months. The last recorded frost fair began in February 1814 and stretched from Blackfriars to Three Crane Stairs. The frozen river was temporarily renamed as City Road.
One of the most bizarre Frost Fair occurrences was the establishment of a printing press, set up by the Croom Company, which for a sixpence printed dated postcards in the middle of the ice. In later years an elephant also braved the fair, attracting quite a crowd. When London Bridge was replaced in 1831 the new design no longer slowed the river’s flow adequately, and the Frost Fairs came to an end.
A frozen Thames was used for more than just fairs – it also provided plenty of royal entertainment (and an effective means of transport). Elizabeth I was known to take to the river in winter to perfect her archery while Henry VIII, in one of the most decadent sleds around, used it to jet between his royal palaces. Meanwhile, Charles II, an avid fan of the aforementioned frost fares, thought a frozen Thames was a wonderful place to entertain and be entertained. He actually received one of the first postcards to be printed on the capital’s frozen centrepiece.
Hampstead Heath Ski Jump
A ski jump was established on Hampstead Heath in 1950 near the Vale of Health. The full-size jump appeared on a sunny March day and was built with snow from Norway. It was a joint venture of the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Oslo Ski Association. A team of 26 Norwegian skiers brought the snow with them (it weighted 45 tons and had been packed in wooden boxes and insulated with dry ice). The jump itself was 18 metres high, giving skiers a 30 metre run-up to the jumping point, which was around four metres above the ground. The Norwegians were joined by jumpers from Oxford and Cambridge to entertain crowds of up to 30,000 people. The attraction was so popular that local traffic was brought to a standstill and the lifts at Hampstead tube station were unable to cope with the numbers.
In December 1952, a thick yellow fog descended on the capital and hung around for five days. London’s history of dense fog began with the industrial revolution, yet this incident was by far the worst. It was so thick that policeman would walk around in front of their vehicles, holding a flair. The fog seeped into homes and buildings, caused serious health problems, and coated the city in grey grime. The Great Smog, as it was dubbed, killed many, with some estimates attributing up to 12,000 deaths to the pollution — making it one of the single greatest disasters in British history. The pea-souper also had many lesser, but weirder effects on the capital. A performance of La Traviata was stopped when the audience couldn’t see the stage. Cattle at the Smithfield Market show had their nostrils covered with whisky-soaked sacks. The following year, the Government was urged to treat the smog with the urgency of a war matter. Despite the distribution of fog masks on the newly created NHS, the following year's fogs still killed hundreds. Further foggy occurrences continued until the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.
There is a rather charming mid-winter tradition for those with a theatrical superstitious streak. Every year, on 5 January, the cast and crew of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane eat Baddeley Cake in honour of the comedic actor Robert Baddeley who, on his death in 1794, left a sum on money to provide a cake for Twelfth Night every year (as well as for wine to go with it). To ward off bad luck — theatre types would be lost without their rituals — the tradition is still upheld. It’s carried out in the theatre’s Green Room by attendants wearing 18th century costumes, who drink to the health of their benefactor.
The Remains of Extinct Winters Past
18,000 years ago, winter was the only season experienced in the northern hemisphere. The remains of woolly rhinos, mammoths and other large mammals have been found beneath Trafalgar Square, Bloomsbury, Canary Wharf and elsewhere in the capital. Ilford is particularly well known for its megafauna finds, where discoveries include an intact mammoth skull.
We recently mapped some of the prehistoric finds across London.
Regent’s Park Ice Skating Disaster
Not all unexpected winter events are particularly merry. On 15 January 1867 Victorian pleasure-seekers ventured onto the frozen lake in the southwest corner of Regent’s Park (ice skating was as popular then as now). While they were warned about the dangers of the thin ice visitors still laced their skates and ventured out. And then tragedy struck. The ice near the banks began to weaken and eventually crack, causing 200 skaters to plunge into the freezing water. Given the temperature, their Victorian garb and limited swimming ability there were numerous fatalities, despite the heroic efforts of those still on the shore. To prevent future incidents the depth of the lake was reduced to around five feet and when a similar event occurred a generation later the hundred or so skaters who fell in suffered no more than an uncomfortable chill. We covered the 1867 tragedy in more detail here.
Soyer’s Christmas Feast
In 1852 celebrated chef Alexis Soyer (the man responsible for the emergence of soup kitchens) organised a Christmas festival in Soho’s Ham Yard. 22,000 of London’s poorest residents were able to enjoy a true Christmas feast. There were 50 roast geese, 20 whole ox, 178 hare pies and 6,000 loaves of bread served (among numerous other delicacies). A charitable effort indeed.
By Liz Schaffer