Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

The last Frost Fair on the River Thames

last frost fair
The Frost Fair of 1814. Painting by Luke Clenell.
Source Wikipedia PD

Take a cold walk on the Thames.

The River Thames in London has frozen over a number of times in the past six centuries. Caused by more severe cold weather than we have nowadays and the design of the old London Bridge with its many small arches which prohibited the flow of ice on the river.

Entrepreneurs have always taken advantage of events when the public's great curiosity is aroused and the freezing of the Thames in 1814 is such an event.

A heavy frost commenced on the 27 December 1813, followed by two days of heavy snowfall. The upper reaches of Thames froze. There then follow a slight thaw and the ice broke up and floated down stream but became jammed into a solid jagged mass between London and Blackfriars Bridges.

The cold returned and by the 30th people were setting out to walk across the ice to the other river bank.

The watermen, unable to ply their trade, demanded a toll which was paid quite happily by the public.

Tents, stalls and amusements were then set up and by the 4th January a street had been created on the ice dubbed 'City Road'. The tents and stalls were decorated with 'flags of all nations, streamers and signs'. Kitchens and furnaces were set up offering roasted lamb, rabbits, geese and sausages. Drinks on offer included gin and beer. On some of the stalls, wags placed humorous signs: 'for sale - no land rent and no ground rent'.

A barge which had been marooned in the middle of the river was converted by the watermen into a dancing room. There was even a printing press set up selling pamphlets commemorating 'the great frost of 1814'.

The ice was not entirely safe in places, as some discovered when they strayed away from the area. At least three men fell into the river, disappearing below the ice and drowning.

The fair ended on the 5th when there was sudden shifting of the mass of ice by the incoming tide which took away the booths and resulted in a number of people having to be rescued from the floating ice.

The demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831 and improvements to the flow of the river made this the last Frost Fair London will ever see.

Sources include: Jackson's Oxford Journal February 12, 1814
Curiosities of London By John Timbs, 1868

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