The Frost Fair of 1814

I am spurred to write for the oddest of reasons. Having read a description of the Thames freezing over, and London experiencing the greatest frost of the century, I knew I wanted to include it as a setting in a novel. The Frost Fair of 1814 figures prominently at the end of At Last.

Particular conditions need to be met for the Thames to freeze over. Its tidal nature and normally swift movement mean it isn’t subject to freezing over. But before the medieval London Bridge was demolished in 1831 (and rebuilt with wider arches that allowed the tide to flow more freely), the Thames froze over at least twenty-three times.

The Frost Fair of 1814 on the River Themse in London Painting by Luke Clenell

In late 1813, right after Christmas, a heavy fog enclosed London. It was so thick and dark that the famed pace of mail carriages slowed to a halt, and lanterns had to be used on carriages and wagons during daylight hours. Despite being familiar with the streets, Londoners were perplexed at having to navigate once-familiar streets with torches in-hand at all hours. This fog hovered over the city until January 3, 1814. This was a ‘darkness that might be felt.’

The fog lifted but was replaced with forty-eight hours of heavy snow. A contemporary writer said, ‘there is nothing in the memory of man to equal these falls.’ The state of the streets became dangerous with the amount of snow, and getting around was difficult. Trade virtually stopped for most of January. Ice formed on the Thames, and by late January, a few brave people ventured to walk on the ice. On Monday, January 31, Londoners gathered on London or Blackfriars Bridges to watch brave souls walk from Queenhithe across to the other side, testing the ice.

By the next day, the ice was a solid block from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge. The waterman who usually ferried people across from one shore to another, now set up signs about the frozen wonderland. They chipped entranceways and charged admission.

People came to party. It was a place where social norms were thrown-out, and people from all walks of life intermingled as they shared the novelty of walking on the frozen Thames. All manner of games and amusements were available like giant swings, sledging, skittles, or donkey races. A vast array of food and drink was available. Whole pigs or sheep were roasted on the ice and sold by the slice. Beer tents were set up with fun names like ‘The City of Moscow’ or ‘The Wellington.’ Gingerbread or roasted chestnuts were hawked.

Frosty printout from 1814 Frost Fair.

A whole new city was created on the ice, with a line of tents marking a street—or ‘mall’—down the middle of the ice. Entrepreneurs came to sell whatever they could. Printers hauled printing presses onto the ice to sell slips of paper with pithy poems or sayings that highlighted that they had been printed on the frozen Thames. Booksellers, entertainers, toy merchants, dance halls, and game halls all opened canvas doors to the thousands that crowded the ice.

The party on the ice lasted almost a week. It rained on and off on Saturday the 5th, though that didn’t deter many. But by Sunday, February 6, 1814, the ice began to thaw, and the tide flowed, which helped to promote more thawing. This would be the last Thames Frost Fair.

Quote from Andrews’ book about end of the 1814 Frost Fair.

Bibliography

1. Andrews, Williams. Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain: Chronicled from the Earliest to the Present Time. G. Redway, 1887.

2. de Castella, Tom. “Frost fair: When an elephant walked on the frozen River Thames,” BBC News Magazine, 28 January 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25862141

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