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

The last Frost Fair on the River Thames

frost fair on the thames
Frost Fair of 1683.
Print from 'Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people, and its places' dated 1873, courtesy of British Library on Flickr. NKCR

Have fun and games on the frozen River 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 which lasted for several days. This was 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 the London and Blackfriars Bridges.

The cold returned and by the 30th January 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 February 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'.

people walking on ice surrounded by tents
Frost Fair of 1788 and 1789
Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art PD

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 amd Curiosities of London By John Timbs, 1868 on the British Newspaper Archive

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