frost fairs 1 (1677 painting by abraham hondius

1677 Painting by Abraham Hondius

Frost Fairs were grand parties held on the river Thames, in London, every time the ice was thick enough to hold their weight. The last one to occur started exactly 200 years ago today, the 1st February 1814 and lasted for four days. In the years since, the river has never frozen to the point where the ice is thick enough to support such a gathering of people.

printed on frost fair

A Keepsake Printed on the Ice

Frost Fairs were held between the 15th and early 19th centuries, in a period known as the Little Ice Age when the river froze at least 23 times. When it froze, those who worked on boats transporting goods and people up and down the river lost their source of income and this had a particularly large impact in the Great Frost of 1683 when the river was frozen for nearly two months. In order to survive, these people organised such fairs and made money charging the people to venture onto the ice.

But what exactly happened to make it so enjoyable? As a cross between a Christmas fair and ice skating it does sound rather exciting, and this opportunity was seized by many traders. There were great printing presses to provide souvenirs from the event, temporary pubs and coffee houses as well as activities to watch such as bull-baiting, puppet shows and horse and coach races. In the last Frost Fair, an elephant was led onto the ice below Blackfriars Bridge to attract the crowds.



An engraving from the 1814 fair

The ice was not all about merriment, with several lives lost. Many Londoners suffered broken bones from falling on the ice and ‘The Institute for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning’, the Icemen of The Royal Humane Society, were established in 1774 to respond when people fell through the ice. Two doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, set up the Society in order to promote the new, controversial medical technique of resuscitation.

Nowadays, the Thames does not freeze in the same way; building of the embankment and wider arches in the bridges allows the tide to flow more freely and prevent such an occurrence. The river has been known to freeze further upstream away from the tide, near Windsor, with the last serious freeze occurring in the Winter of 1963.