History

Stories of the Stuarts: River Thames Frost Fairs



There are records of a Frost Fair on the River Thames dating back to as early as the Winter of 1607 though they really became a popular event as the 17th century was drawing to an end. Though just what is a Frost Fair I hear you ask? Well they are exactly what they sound like, a fair held on top of a frozen River Thames and for over 200 years, they became the place to be for the residents of a very cold London.

The River Thames Frost Fair during the Winter of 1684/85.

The River Thames Frost Fair during the Winter of 1684/85.

Between the years of 1600 and 1814 Britain was locked in what is now known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ and it was not uncommon for the River Thames to freeze over every Winter. While the extremely cold winters bought famine and sometimes death, they also brought about a resiliency in the people of London, a resiliency that turned into enterprise and bore the Thames Frost Fairs.

While there were only seven major Frost Fairs held between 1600 and 1814, there were countless smaller fairs held too. The fairs consisted of quickly constructed pubs, shops and ice skating rinks, everything one would expect in Stuart London, just on top of the River Thames!

The first Frost Fair held in the Winter of 1607/08 saw football pitches constructed on the ice as well as events such as bowling matches put on. There was also a shoemakers, barbers and people selling fruit all from the top of a very thick layer of ice.

Perhaps the biggest and most popular Frost Fair came during the Great Winter of 1683/84, where even the seas off of Southern Britain froze for two miles off shore. The Blanket Fair, as it was known, saw coffee houses, inns and souvenir shops constructed as well as traditional Stuart entertainment including fox-hunting, bear baiting, football and ox roasting.

Famous English writer, John Evelyn, describes the famous Frost Fair, “Coaches piled from Westminster to Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.”

River Thames Frost Fair

River Thames Frost Fair

Though the River Thames Frost Fair were a joyous event for many, owing to them being held on top of frozen water, tragedy did strike from time to time. During the mid 18th century, a whole swathe of ice gave away and took with it tents, businesses and people. In 1789, melting ice dragged away a ship that was anchored to a riverside pub in Rotherhithe.

Aside from the tragedy’s, the Frost Fairs were a roaring success with royalty even joining in with the festivities. King Charles II is said to have enjoyed a spit roasted ox at the Blanket Fair in 1685.

The last Frost Fair was held in 1814 though with modern day Winters getting cold one wonders if we will ever see one again. Surely it would be a sight to behold to see the likes of Prince Charles and Camilla, William and Kate and Prince Harry at a hastily constructed pub on top of the River Thames!

Photo Credits: By Rita Greer [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons
By Oliver Chettle [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons