Between 1400 and 1814 (which was the last time it happened) the Thames froze over 26 times. And when it froze solid, Londoners made the most of it, holding Frost Fairs on the ice itself.
The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold. It was also the time known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800.
The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower moving.
The Thames froze several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, whilst menfolk played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:
On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. 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; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.
On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.
The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608. It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.
The Long Freeze or Great Freeze of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began six weeks before Christmas, and lasted well into February.
Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river. A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and chair-pushing events were also set up.
A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:
A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.
The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair. Not only rivers but huge chunks of the North Sea froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. A London paper said:
The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.
On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.
The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814. The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid. An elephant was even led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice!
Hordes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week. Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:
Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.
The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.
Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.