The Final Frost Fair: What Do You Do When the Thames Freezes Over?

Kristi here. Has your winter been insane? Mine certainly has. In a single week in February, we had an ice/snow storm, a sunny 70 degree afternoon, and even felt the minor tremors of an earthquake. The ice and snow has definitely been the biggest surprise of this winter. Multiple crippling freezes have crossed this country, two reaching deep into the south.

Sail Tents on the ice during the frost fairThe ramifications of cold weather were l to the people of Regency England. 1816 is even famously known as the year without a summer. However, it was 200 years ago in February 1814 that the last of the great Frost Fairs occurred on the great Thames River.

It wasn’t the first time the Thames River froze over. Indeed it happened more than twenty times since 1309. This was, however, the last time. The replacement of London Bridge in 1831 and Victorian addition of the Embankment improved the water flow to the extent that a solid freeze hasn’t happened again and is highly unlikely to do so.

With the city pulled to a halt by the bitter cold and drifting snow, people were drawn to the novelty of solid ice, allowing them to walk and play where boats usually reigned. A thoroughfare of sailing vessels, to the tune of 1500 a day, brought to a halt by Mother Nature.

Among the frivolities included in the 1814 Frost Fair were:

–          An elephant crossing the river, demonstrating the thickness and security of the ice near Blackfriars Bridge.

–          A printing press set up on the ice, churning out commemorative books about the fair

–          Food and drink vendors galore and impromptu bars created with ship sails

–          Fires built right on the ice, with large oxen roasting over them

–          Ice skating, bowling, and every other game or sport imaginable

Everything was not all light and smiles, though.

Frost Fair on the Thames with London Bridge in the background.
Frost Fair on the Thames with London Bridge in the background.

With no way to earn their keep on the river, dock workers and ferrymen took to guarding the stairs and ladders that led to the icy surface, charging people a toll to attend the fair and then collecting a penny again when they wanted to leave. Pickpockets took advantage of all the slipping and sliding and drunken frivolity.

The party lasted four days. When the ice began to crack, it proved fatal for some of the final revelers. It also sent huge chunks of ice floating down the river, crashing into barges and doing thousands of pounds in damage.

Four short days, but they were legendary ones. There’s even a reference in Doctor Who, when The Doctor and River visit it for an ice skating outing (A Good Man Goes to War).  In some ways the fair marked the coming end of an era. As the Regency ended and the Victorian age began, life in England would alter considerably. Transportation, engineering, social habits, and opportunities would all change.

Never again would everything align perfectly to create such a unique experience as the Thames Frost Fair.

Have you had unique experiences with snow and ice this year? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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