There are certainly some good reasons why I am grateful not to live in times of public executions, of traitors’ heads put on spikes on London Bridge or before the sewage system was established in London in the 1850s. Nevertheless, there are other past events which I regret not to be able to attend and one of them is the spectacle of London frost fairs.
The current shape of the river Thames and the structure of the present London Bridge don’t allow the water to freeze anymore, but the time when the river was a lot wider and shallower and the presence of the Old London Bridge (which was also the only bridge on the river until the first half of the 18th century) made it possible to hold fairs on the Thames.
Let’s dive back in the past to when all of this was possible.
From the time of the Stuarts up until the 19th century, the River Thames froze over twenty times and on some of those occasions it was possible to enjoy entertainment on the iced river.
What contributed to make that possible, together with colder winters than what we experience now, was Old London Bridge, built on nineteen arches supported by small piers with projecting "starlings", which broke up the flow of the river. In winter, when these arches were blocked with ice and debris, London Bridge acted almost like a dam, slowing the Thames and helping it to freeze.
It is hard to imagine that now but it would have been a real ‘Wonderland’ on ice, with different sorts of entertainments going on such as ice skating, buying gingerbread, playing games and gambling.
In 1608, the Thames froze for six weeks and we have the first officially documented Frost Fair.
The frost fair of 1683-1684 is quite well recorded. There was a street of booths, puppet shows, bull-baiting, horse racing and ox-roasting. The Museum of London’s collection even holds a letterpress frost-fair souvenir commemorating the visit of King Charles II and the royal family to the Frost Fair held that winter. This is probably the first reference to printing presses at the fair, but they soon became a standard feature of the annual fairs.
However, it’s not difficult to imagine that holding a festival on a rather precarious piece of ice can cause occasional accidents which is some cases translated into tragedy. During the fair of 1739 a whole swathe of ice gave away and swallowed up tents and businesses as well as people. Fifty years later in 1789, the captain of a ship made an agreement with the owner of a pub in Rotherhithe to anchor the vessel into his premises, with cables fastened round beams in the house. On that night melting ice dragged away the ship and levelled the house to the ground, killing at least five people.
Despite accidents occurring, frost fairs continued until winters became too mild. The last recorded fair was in 1814, which brought the tradition to a grandiose end with even an elephant parade on ice with thousands of spectators attending. This five-day-fair in February 1814, with the majority of the fair taking place between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, shed light on the City on ice.