Tag Archives: London Bridge

The Frost Fair



Hey everyone Happy Holidays. I had something in mind for a Christmas episode this year – and that thing ballooned out to around two hours of audio. Apologies all, I’m burned out. I don’t think I could get a two hour episode together before the 25th.  

I’m going to zoom in on the one aspect of that episode that I think best sums up this time of year – and release some of the outtakes as their own mini episodes throughout 2023. 

A few episodes back we spent some time on the Thames, looking at those poor weeping willow trees, and of course the profligate King who gamed the system with Tallysticks made from those trees, passing his debts onto the city’s jewellers. Today we’ll return to that river, and to that king, but first a flash forward. 

In 1831 a bridge along the Thames was opened to the public. The project was begun by a Scottish engineer named John Rennie senior. It took a while, and would be completed upon his death by his son, John Rennie junior. This new London bridge was a solid, dependable replacement for an older London bridge – though it looked a little old-fashioned by the time it was completed. By the 1960s, as motorised vehicle use greatly increased, the 1831 bridge became no longer fit for purpose and would itself be replaced. The 1831 London Bridge would be dismantled, then reassembled in a town in Colorado, USA. 

If the Tallysticks were our hero in the earlier tale, then this bridge is the villain of this tale – or at least a massive killjoy. It had a far greater clearance than it’s predecessor, and fewer arches – and water flowed with ease through it’s arches. 

Because of this, the Thames river never froze again. 

On nine occasions in London’s past, not only did the Thames freeze over in winter, but when it did a frost fair rose up – bringing in all in sundry out to play. From 1564 to 1813 Rich and poor alike came together on the ice, and partook in the carnivalesque atmosphere. In 1564, the event was simply a great outpouring of the people onto the ice. People strolled along the river. Some played games. Queen Elizabeth I, enraptured by the festive scene going on outside her window gathered her entourage and joined in on the fun. In 1608 people set up stalls on the ice for the first time. As you made your way through the pop up village you could buy a beer or a glass of wine. You could buy fruit, or even get a full meal on the river. Shoe shops, barbershops, and much more set up on the ice. 

It is December 1683, and it looks like, yet again the Thames is going to freeze. The nights grew longer. A bone-chilling cold pervaded the air. Increasingly large chunks of ice formed on the water – some of those chunks breaking away, endangering the many river ferries who plied their trade on the river. After a cruel year which saw a smallpox epidemic tear through the city, it must be said the people had every right to feel cold, tired and miserable. To want to hibernate till spring and wish good riddance to the year. Those people did nothing of the sort. Filled with Christmas cheer, they gathered by the riverside in their thousands. They waited for hell to freeze over.  

On the Twelfth day of Christmas, January 5th 1684, when – to quote the writer John Evelyn –  “the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there has not been the like,” the Thames finally solidified into one solid sheet of ice. Was it strong enough to hold a fair? Two men took a bet it wouldn’t hold a coach and six horses. It did, easily. 

All of a sudden, rows and rows of stalls and tents appeared, as thousands of Londoners made their way out onto the ice. For three days the populace forgot all of their troubles and partied amongst the carnivalesque atmosphere. Then, just as quickly, the thaw began… the people held their breath. 

It turns out the Frost Fair was not done yet. A bracingly cold wind reared up, and the Thames froze back over again – well mostly froze over again. Several people found themselves wandering out onto less than solid parts, and accidentally fell through the ice. There were several deaths. Surprisingly, this didn’t dampen the spirits of the revellers. The frost fair partied on. Whatever passed for weather reporters looked upon the ice, and prophesied the Thames would stay frozen till March. 

One day a man, well inebriated at an ice tavern, boasted he could build a three storey house on the ice, spend a night there, then tear it back down again before the frost broke. Bets were taken on this and construction began. I could find no confirmation if the man won his bet. 

King Charles II looked out his window at the teeming mass of subjects below, and forthwith ordered a painter to the palace. Orders were made for a panorama of the scene outside, to remind the king of the joyousness of the crowd. Any time he felt blue, Charles could look upon it and remember the Frost Fair. On the 23rd January, Charles ordered a collection be taken from the rich, for the poor of London. Looking out the window, it appears the king began seeing the partygoers as people, and certainly felt more compassion for them than he had the jewellers of the city. On the 31st the King gathered his entourage and headed out onto the ice himself. 

He was, of course, not the only member of the ruling class to take to the fair. It was one of those rare occasions when all classes got amongst it together, cheek by jowl. The aforementioned John Evelyn – a writer, landscape gardener and, when remembered these days, remembered as London’s second most famous diarist of the time (to Samuel Pepys) – visited the fair on January 24th. Evelyn wrote. 

“The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London, was still planted with boothes in formal streetes, all sorts of shops and trades furnish’d and full of commodities even to a printing-presse… Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet-playes, and interludes, cookes, tipling, and other lewd places, so that it seem’d to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”

A city within a city, where all observances of class and everyday sorrows were on hold – a place so remarkable it brought a profligate king who twelve years earlier bankrupted all the jewellers in the city, to order a significant act of charity for the poor. A ‘bacchanalian triumph’ a ‘carnival on the water’- well, such an utopia could not last. Utopias rarely do. First the watermen, a trade employing 20,000 Londoners – who had been unable to make money during the fair – petitioned to convert their boats to makeshift sleds. When told no, they petitioned for a ban on coach rides across the Thames – if they had to suffer why should coach drivers be allowed to profit? 

This all became a moot point soon enough, and as February 1684 came, the river slowly defrosted. The taverns, stalls, horse races and all manner of buskers returned to terra-firma. The many joys of the Great Frost Fair of 1684 were relegated to the memories of Londoners – until the next time – a three month long carnival beginning in November 1715.

In the midst of adversity – three years in to our own great pandemic – I hope everyone is keeping safe… and everyone finds joy in the season this year. 

Stay safe all, I’ll be back January 25th with more Tales of History and Imagination.