What Was It Like At A Frost Fair?

By Dr Matthew Green Last edited 92 months ago

Last Updated 11 November 2016

What Was It Like At A Frost Fair?
The Thames Frost Fair of 1677.

It’s a travesty of history that the Thames no longer freezes over. If only the Victorians hadn’t narrowed the river quickening its flow by building embankments. But travel to December 1715 and you’ll find it frozen solid from London Bridge to Charing Cross.

Don’t expect it to look like a smooth ice-rink. Expect “a rude and terrible appearance”; “as if there had been a violent storm and it had froze the waves just as they were beating against one another”.

On the ice you'll find a riotous, carnivalesque atmosphere, with Londoners relishing the surreal sense of unexpected liberty brought to them by ‘Freezeland Fair’, as they walk from bank to bank.

You’ll have to pay the temporarily-redundant watermen a small fee to set foot on — and leave — the ice, and they may also dig channels, lay planks, and demand further tolls.

You’ll see tents propped up with oars containing coffeehouses, Houses of Geneva (gin booths), poetry jams, and elsewhere, games of nine-pin bowling, and animals being baited on the ice in a ring of spectators. If you see a printing press, get them to churn out a little bespoke memento — plays on the transience of ice versus the permanence of print, these are very popular (Hogarth had one made for his pug dog Trump in 1740).

Whatever you do don’t stray from the rutted paths, or you may never be seen again — and spare a thought for the poor people frozen to death in their beds.

If you see any cracks in the ice — get off, quick. Frost fairs thaw dangerously quickly; before you know it, islands of ice will be floating downriver taking booths and printing presses and terrified people with them, pummelling any vessels lying in the way, and smashing into the arches of London Bridge.

London’s final frost fair came in 1814. Reportedly “a very fine elephant was led across the Thames a little below Blackfriars Bridge”.

Historian and broadcaster Dr Matthew Green is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, out now in Penguin paperback.

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