Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Early Frost Fairs on the frozen Thames in London 250 AD - 1683



1677 Abraham Danielsz. Hondius (Dutch-born English artist, 1625–1691) The Frozen Thames

The River Thames frost fairs were held at London in several winters between the 17C & early 19C, when the river froze. From 1400 to 1814, there are records of more than 2 dozen winters during which the Thames were recorded to have frozen solid at London. The Thames had frozen over several times in the 16C. Reportedly King Henry VIII traveled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536; and Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice frequently during 1564, to "shoot at marks," while small boys played football on the ice.  


From 1400 to the early 19C, over 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen over at London, included: 1408, 1435, 1506, 1514, 1537, 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, 1655, 1663, 1666, 1677, 1684, 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, 1776, 1788, 1795, & 1814. During many of these, "Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; & the people, both men & women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London." 

Long before 1400, the Thames was freezing into solid ice.  One of the earliest accounts of the Thames freezing over comes from A.D. 250 when it was said to have frozen hard for nine weeks. In A.D. 923 the river iced over & wheeled traffic transported goods along its length for thirteen weeks. 


The 1835 Saturday Magazine reported, that during the reign of William Rufus (c 1056-1100), was recorded a frost "whereby," in the words of an old chronicler, "the great streams [of England] were congealed in such a manner that they could draw two hundred horsemen & carriages over them; whilst at their thawing, many bridges, both of wood & stone, were borne down, & divers water-mills were broken up, & carried away."  The Thames reportedly froze again in 1114, for four weeks


The History & Survey of London & Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, 1806, reports "We are told that in the year 1150 the summer proved so extremely wet, that a dearth almost equal to famine ensued ; & the winter of this year was remarkable for a severe frost, which commenced on the ninth of December, & continued till the beginning of March, during a great part of which time, the Thames was frozen so hard as to admit of carts & other carriages passing over the ice."


The freezing of the Thames is thought to have been aided or even caused by the structure of Old London Bridge (1176-1825) after 1176. The bridge was built with 19 arches & each of the 20 piers was supported by large breakwaters called "starlings."  The old London Bridge  acted as a weir & more or less prevented tides & salt water passing that point. When chunks of ice got caught between them, it slowed the flow of the river above the bridge, making it more likely to freeze over. When New London Bridge opened in 1831, it only had 5 arches.  Once this structure was in place, the Thames never froze over in the London area again - despite temperatures dropping to -20C at times in a notoriously cold winter of 1895.


G H Birch reported in his 1903 From London on Thames, that "in 1282 there was a most terrible frost, the like of which had never been known. The pressure of ice heaped up against [London] Bridge, & unable to pass through from the narrowness of the arches of the bridge, carried away five arches of it, & rendered it, of course, impassable for the time until they were rebuilt."  One eyewitness wrote that "From this Christmas till the Purification of Our Lady, there was such a frost & snow, as no man living could remember the like; wherethrough, five arches of London Bridge, & all Rochester Bridge, were borne downe & carried away by the streame; & the like happened to many bridges in England. And, not long after, men passed over the Thames, between Westminster & Lambeth, dry-shod."


A possible "frost fair" occurred in the winter of 1309-10.  Several London Bridge arches were damaged by ice during a severe winter. The Thames was frozen. A possible frost-fair was held on the Thames in London; which can be inferred by the statements in some chronicles that "sport" was held on the river plus a few reports of people walking across the Thames. According to contemporary reports "dancing took place around a fire built on the ice & a hare was coursed (chased) on the frozen waterway."


In the winter of 1338-39, hard frost started in December & lasted for 12 weeks in London & to the South. Also, from the Annals of Dublin"So great a frost was this year (AD 1338) from the 2d of December to the 10th of February, that the river Liffey was frozen over so hard as to bear dancing, running, playing foot-ball, & making fires to broil herrings on. The depth of the snow that fell during this frost, is almost incredible; yet it is agreed, that such a season was never before known in Ireland."


The severe winter of 1407-08 affected most of Europe & is regarded by climatologists as one of the most difficult on record. The frost lasted for 15 weeks & people were able to walk across the frozen Thames. According to Ian Currie (a noted authority on historical weather events), "one of the most snowy & was of outstanding duration." In Europe, ice in the Baltic had allowed traffic between the Scandinavian nations, & wolves had passed over the ice from Norway to Denmark.  In 1410, once again the river froze solid for fourteen weeks & was turned into a roadway to ease congestion in the city.  The 1410 Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London recorded that "Thys yere was the grete frost & ise & the most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, & it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men might in dyvers places both goo & ryde over the Temse."


The winter of 1434-35 was perhaps one of the most harsh in the last millennium.  In this winter, the Thames was frozen from below London Bridge to Gravesend. Sea-borne goods were landed at the mouth of the river & taken over the ice into London. A frost (however defined) from the latter part of November continued to (at least) St. Valentine's Day (14th February). There are reports of "intense frost" in Scotland in the winter of 1435 & a note that the Thames was frozen sufficient to bear waggons in the same year. The 1806 History & Survey of London & Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, noted that "In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th of November, & held till the 10th of February, following ; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes & provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, & brought by land to the city."


In 1506, a frost froze the Thames throughout January; observers reported that horses & carts could cross the frozen river. The Thames froze again in January 1514, & carts crossed from Lambeth to Westminster. The Chronicles of the Grey Friars of London noted that "Such a sore snowe & a frost that men myght goo with carttes over the Temse & horses, & it lastyd tylle Candelmas."


The History & Survey of London & Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, 1806 states that "Fabian says, that, in 1515, the Thames was frozen so hard that carriages of all sorts passed between Westminster & Lambeth upon the ice." Reportedly in January of 1517, the Thames froze again.  


In 1536-37,  A frost caused the Thames to freeze in London: King Henry VIII, with his queen (Jane Seymour .. who was to die late in the year [1537] after giving birth to the future Edward VI) rode on the ice-bound river from London (probably Whitehall) to Greenwich.  Another severe, prolonged frost set in 7th December 1564. The court of Elizabeth I indulged in sports on the ice at Westminster. Football & other games were played on the ice.


In 1564-65, Holinshed noted that "the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year's eve people went over & along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster.  On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, & on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge & Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods & high waters, that bare down bridges & houses, & drowned many people in England."




The Saturday Magazine reported in 1835, that "The next remarkable frost recorded is that of 1608."  It began on the 8th of December, & continued until the 15th; a thaw then ensued until the 22nd, when it began "againe to freeze violently, so as diverse persons went halfe way over the Thames upon the ice; & the 30th of December, at every ebbe, many people went quite over the Thames in divers places, & so continued until the 3rd of January."  The people passed daily betweene London & the Bankside at every halfe ebbe, for the flood removed the ice & forced the people daily to tread new paths, except onely betweene Lambeth & the ferry at Westminster, the which, by incessant treading, became very firm, & free passage, untill the great thaw; & from Sunday, the tenth of January, until the fifteenth of the same, the frost grew so extreme, as the ice became firme, & removed not, & then all sorts of men, women, & children, went boldly upon the ice in most parts; some shot at prickes; others bowled & danced, with other variable pastimes, by reason of which concourse of people, there wore many that set up boothes & standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere & wine, shoomakers, & a barber's tent, &c."  In these tents were fires. The ice lasted till the afternoon of the 2nd of February, when " it was quite dissolved & clean gon."  Weeks of hard frosts led to the Thames being frozen, with traders sensing a chance to sell souvenirs - & dozens of shops put in place overnight.  Unlicensed gambling, drinking & dancing were held at the fairs, along with stalls selling food & drink, skittle alleys & fairground rides." 

In the winter of 1629-21, a Frost Fair was held on the Frozen Thames. In 1634-35, a severe winter froze the Thames. In parts of England, a frost lasted from the 15th December 1634(OSP) until 11th February 1635(OSP), with frequent snowfall. The winter of 1648-49 saw another frost which froze the Thames. Between winter 1662-63 to winter 1666-67, three of the five winters in this period were cold, with severe frosts. It is claimed that skating was introduced into England during the winter of 1662/63 and that the King (Charles II) watched this new sport on the frozen Thames.


The Frost Fair of 1683-84, was well recorded in both words & images, & is reported on in a connected essay on this blog.


From late December 1688 to early February 1689, extended periods of bitterly cold weather covered England. A frost fair was held on the Thames (by 3rd January (OSP), when the Thames was already reported to be "full of ice," such that boats could not navigate; by the 7th (OSP), diariest Evelyn notes that the Thames was "almost frozen over," which implies persistent sub-zero temperatures & often strong east winds to allow the ice to form to sufficient thickness & stability.


On January 13, 1695, The Thames was frozen over. The deaths by smallpox increased to 500 more than in the preceding week. On 3rd February.


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