FROST FAIRS ON THE RIVER THAMES
Winters in England used to be colder than they are now, and there are records from as far back as 250 A.D. of the River Thames, which flows through London, freezing over. But from about the 16thh to the early 19th centuries, all of Europe experienced what is now referred to as the Little Ice Age, and during that period the Thames froze solid about twenty-five times.
The river had always been a primary way for people to get around, so it was only natural that when they couldn’t travel by boat through the Thames’s waters, they traveled on top of its ice. In 1536, King Henry VIII traveled by sleigh along the river to his palace at Greenwich, and in 1564 Queen Elizabeth sported on the ice in company with boys playing football.
It was unusual enough for the river to freeze solid that it became something of an occasion and a cause for merrymaking, and in 1608, a Frost Fair sprang up on the frozen Thames. Like the annual Bartholomew Fair and the other traditional warm-weather fairs, the Frost Fair featured performances, games, and stalls selling food and drink.
The winter of 1683-1684 saw the worst frost ever recorded in England, with the river frozen over for two months, and this Great Frost saw the most famous Frost Fair of all.
On January 1, 1684, diarist John Evelyn wrote “the weather continuing intollerably severe, so as streets of Boothes were set up upon the Thames.” On January 9, he “went crosse the Thames upon the ice (which was now become so incredibly thick, as to beare not onely whole streetes of booths in which they roasted meat, & had divers shops of wares, quite crosse as in a Towne, but Coaches & carts & horses passed over.” Later that evening he went home, “walking over the Ice from Lambeth stayres to the horse ferry.”
On January 24, “the frost still continuing more & more severe, the Thames before London was
planted with bothes in formal streetes, as in a Citty, or Continual faire, all sorts of Trades & shops furnished & full of commodities, even to a Printing presse, where the People and Ladyes took a fansy to have their names printed and the day & yeare set downe, when printed on the Thames: This humour took so universally, that ‘twas estimated the Printer gained five pound a day, for printing a line onely, at sixpence a Name, besides what he gott by Ballads &c: Coaches now plied from Westminster to the Temple, & from several other staires too and fro, as in the streets; also on sleds, sliding with skeetes; There was likewise Bull-baiting, Horse and Coach races, Pupet-plays & interludes, Cookes and Tipling & other lewder places; so as it seem’d to be a bacchanalia, Triumph or Carnoval on Water.”
By January 30, “the frost still raging as fircely as ever, the River of Thames was become a
Camp, ten thousands of people, Coaches, Carts, & all manner of sports continuing & increasing.”
It was not all fun, however, as Evelyn noted “miserable were the wants of poore people, deare
universally perished in most of the parks thro-out England, & very much Cattell.”
That printer who hit on the novelty of printing people’s names for sixpence a shot had a brilliant
idea. Even the king, Charles II, had his name printed, and the printer made a fortune. Five
pounds was a lot of money in those days when, according to Liza Picard’s Restoration London, a
penny would buy a pound of the cheapest cheese, three red or white herrings, or a loaf of bread,
depending on the size. Four pounds would buy a woman’s country suit. Seven pounds was
enough to cover the housekeeping bills of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, clerk of the
Navy Board, and his wife and servants for a month!
The river froze periodically over the next 130 years or so, in 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, 1768, 1776,
1785, 1788, 1795, and 1814. The last Frost Fair was held in 1814 and lasted four days. An
elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. Another enterprising printer named
Davis published a book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State.
But the days when the river would freeze solid were coming to an end. Part of what had made it
possible was that the great starlings or piers that supported old London Bridge impeded the flow
of the water, and created barriers of ice. When the bridge was torn down in 1831 and replaced
by a bridge with wider arches, the fast-moving water wouldn’t freeze so easily. And in 1865,
construction began on the Victoria Embankment, which reclaimed thirty-seven acres from the
river, making it narrower and deeper. The river never froze again.
On December 22, 2003, the Bankside Winter Festival was inaugurated in celebration of the history of the area and the old Frost Fairs. It grew, and in 2008, the festival included about 50 stalls selling arts and crafts. It opened on December 12 with a Frost Fair-themed lantern parade, with approximately 270 local school children taking part. The parade brought to life aspects of the old Frost Fairs, with lanterns the shape of ice-skaters, dancing bears, and vendors selling roasted chestnuts. The lantern parade ended outside Tate Modern, where the Frost Fair lantern scene was assembled and remained on display until December 21. On Saturday December 13 there was a celebratory procession of Traditional Thames cutters carrying Frost Fair flags on the River Thames between Southwark and Blackfriars Bridges, and a series of Frost Fair guided walks focused on Bankside’s connection with the river and its rich theatrical history as London’s original West End.
About the author ~
Gillian Bagwell has had a life-long love of books, British history, and theatre, and united these passions in writing her first novel, The Darling Strumpet. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and began her professional life as an actress. She majored in theatre at the University of California at Berkeley, and then attended a year-long British professional acting training program, the Drama Studio London at Berkeley. She moved from acting to directing and producing, founding The Pasadena Shakespeare Company in 1994, and producing thirty-seven productions over nine seasons.
Gillian began researching Nell Gwynn as the subject of one-woman show, but realized that such a brief format couldn’t do justice to the richness of Nell’s life, and started writing The Darling Strumpet while living in London in 2006. Her extensive background in theatre has enabled her to bring vividly to life the theatrical conditions and performances of Nell’s time.
During the course of researching The Darling Strumpet, Gillian learned of the unbelievable true story of Jane Lane, who risked her life to help the young Charles II escape after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651 by disguising him as her servant. Jane’s perilous and romantic odyssey with Charles is the subject of Gillian’s second book, The September Queen, which will be published in the U.S. by Berkley Publishing Group in November 2011 and in the U.K. by Avon UK in November 2012.
From London’s slums to its bawdy playhouses, The Darling Strumpet transports the reader to the tumultuous world of seventeenth-century England, charting the meteoric rise of the dazzling Nell Gwynn, who captivates the heart of King Charles II-and becomes one of the century’s most famous courtesans.
Witty and beautiful, Nell was born into poverty but is drawn into the enthralling world of the theater, where her saucy humor and sensuous charm earn her a place in the King’s Company. As one of the first actresses in the newly-opened playhouses, she catapults to fame, winning the affection of legions of fans-and the heart of the most powerful man in all of England, the King himself. Surrendering herself to Charles, Nell will be forced to maneuver the ruthless and shifting allegiances of the royal court-and discover a world of decadence and passion she never imagined possible.
- This contest is open to residents of USA only!
- Please complete the form below – do not leave information in the comments – it will not count.
- The contest will end on January 18th at 11:59PM EST; 2 winners will be selected and contacted thereafter.
- Once the winners are contacted, they will have 48 hours to respond to my email or another winner will be chosen (make sure to check your spam filters!).
- Book will be shipped directly from Penguin.