Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Great Frost Fair of 1814

by M.M. Bennetts

Boxing Day, 1813. Like a blanket of lambswool, heavy fog lay over southern England as the temperature plummeted.

That afternoon, piled into two travelling carriages, the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and his family had drawn away from their house in St. James's Square, heading for Colchester in Essex on their way to Harwich from which they were to depart for the Continent. As his niece wrote, they left London "in a fog so intense, that the carriages went at a foot's pace, with men holding flambeaux at the head of the horses."

Though deep frosts, gales and deeper snows, blizzards even, had marked the last decade of the old century, the cruel bite of this mini-Ice Age had seemed to lessen in the opening years of the 19th century. Though Boxing Day three years previous had seen such severe temperatures that the Thames had frozen as Londoners huddled inside their houses, trying to keep warm.

A heavy frost began the next day, 27th December 1813, followed by two days of a continuous heavy snowfall--the heaviest recorded snowfall for nearly 300 years. The upper reaches of the Thames froze too.

A day later came a slight thaw, and the ice at Wey Bridge began to break up and to float downstream, only to crash and jam into a jagged and solid mass--like some scene from the Polar icecap--between Blackfriars and London Bridges.

And the frost returned, harder and colder than previously--probably due to the covering of deep snow that coated the land. The fog too still hung heavy over London, stranding travellers, slowing or halting the mails, while great ice floes continued to break off and to drift down the waterway.

By the 30th, the fog had finally cleared--whipped off by a Northerly gale.

But by now, the tidal stretch of the Thames had frozen so solid that people were walking across the river to the other bank. And the watermen, unable to make a living rowing people across the water, demanded a toll of these brave pedestrians.

And still the cold held, gripping the land as the temperatures continued several degrees below freezing. By 4th January 1814, the Great Frost Fair had begun.

Stalls and tents, decorated with "flags of all nations, streamers and signs" began appearing on the ice to create what they called "City Road", among them kitchens or rapidly constructed 'furnaces' selling roasted geese, lamb, rabbits and sausages to the public. Gin and beer were also on sale.

In the middle of the river, a marooned barge was converted into a 'dancing room'.

Contemporary accounts from "The Annual Register" and Hone's "Every Day Book" provide the most vivid and wonderful stories of the winter in London that year and of the Fair itself.

21st January 1814: "In London the great accumulation of snow already heaped on the ground, and condensed by three or four weeks of continued frost, was on Wednesday increased by a fresh fall, to a height hardly known in the memory of the oldest inhabitants. The cold has been intensely severe, the snow during the last fall being accompanied with a sharp wind and a little moisture. In many places, where the houses are old, it became necessary to relieve the roofs, by throwing off the load collected upon them, and by these means the carriage-way in the middle of the streets is made of a depth hardly passable for pedestrians, while carriages with difficulty plough their way through the mass."

27th January 1814: "Yesterday the wind having veered round to the south-west, the effects of thaw were speedily discernible. The fall of the river at London Bridge has for several days past presented a scene both novel and interesting. At the ebbing of the tide huge fragments of ice were precipitated down the stream with great violence, accompanied by a noise equal to the report of a small piece of artillery. On the return of the tide they were forced back again ; but the obstacles opposed to their passage through the arches were so great as apparently to threaten a total stoppage to the navigation of the river."

1st February 1814: "The Thames between Blackfriars and London Bridges continued to present the novel scene of persons moving on the ice in all directions and in greatly increased numbers. The ice, however, from its roughness and inequalities is totally unfit for amusement, although we observed several booths erected upon it for the sale of small wares, but the publicans and spirit-dealers were most in the receipt of custom. The whole of the river opposite Queenhithe was frozen over, and in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon, notwithstanding which, crowds of foot passengers crossed backwards and forwards throughout the whole of the day. We did not hear of any lives being lost, but many who ventured too far towards Blackfriars Bridge were partially immersed in the water by the ice giving way. Two coopers were with difficulty saved."

2nd February 1814: "The Thames this day presented a complete frost fair. The grand mall or walk extended from Blackfriars to London Bridge. This was named the city road, and was lined on each side by persons of all descriptions. Eight or ten printing-presses were erected, and numerous pieces commemorative of the ' great frost' were printed on the ice."

3rd February 1814: "The number of adventurers increased. Swings, book-stalls, dancing in a barge, suttling-booths, playing at skittles, and almost every appendage of a fair on land appeared on the Thames. Thousands flocked to the spectacle. The ice presented a most picturesque appearance. The view of St. Paul's and of the city, with the white foreground, had a very singular effect ; in many parts mountains of ice upheaved, resembled the rude interior of a stone quarry."

4th February 1814: "Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost. The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day. Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north."

Then, finally, on 5th February, an incoming tide brought about a sudden shifting in the mass of ice.

Booths which had only a few hours previously been secure were suddenly floating downstream and several people had to be rescued from the broken-off floes. Further down, the great jagged floes crashed into ships and boats, damaging them.

By 7th February, the sensational event was finished: "The ice between London Bridge and Blackfriars gave way yesterday, in consequence of the high tides. On Saturday, thousands of people walked on the ice from one bridge to the other notwithstanding there were evident signs of its speedy breaking up, and even early yesterday morning some foolhardy persons passed over from Bankside to Queenhithe. About an hour after this the whole mass gave way, and swept with a tremendous range through the noble arches of Blackfriars Bridge, carrying along with it all within its course, including about forty barges.

"The new erections for the Strand bridge impeded its progress and a vast quantity of the ice was there collected, but the strong current on the Somerset House side carried everything before it, and the passage of the river became at last free."

Quite simply amazing, don't you think?

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.


  1. Great! One of my favorite books is "The Frozen Thames" by Helen Humphreys. A beautiful little book - a vignette from each of the forty times the Thames has frozen solid over its history. There were also frost fairs in many other years.

  2. I've heard reference to these before, but its just so incredible to read the description and accounts of those who were there.

    Thanks for the posting!

  3. Gillian, yes, there were frost fairs in earlier years--and they sound great fun to me--but this was the last of them. And the winter of 1814 had the heaviest recorded snowfall in the last 300 years--three feet in Edinburgh. (Actually, it was a completely rubbish winter everywhere, because the terrible weather contributed enormously to Napoleon's inability things in France which led to his downfall...)

  4. That last line should read "inability to control things in France"... (Thanks to my puppy sticking her nose helpfully onto the laptop keys it reads otherwise.)

  5. An intriguing vision. Virginia Woolf's rendering of a Frost Fair in Orlando is for me the most vivid passage in her vividly imaginative book -- and the Frost Fair may be the least imaginary.

  6. This takes me back (many) years to my childhood in frozen Minnesota. My dad would take us out on an iced-over lake and drive like a maniac, spinning the car around and around. It was pretty safe, as there was nothing to crash into! Great fun. And I will never forget the crystallized trees.

  7. The last Frost Fair--can you imagine what it would be like if this were to happen again? I do wish I could have seen it.

    Side note--I'm mentally going over the calendar of events in my current book, wondering if I need to mention this. This could complicate things slightly!

  8. I am in the throes of researching Historical Climatology for my University Dissertation. I found historical temperature data from 1684, which suggested a freezing over, then Google led me here! Totally fascinating! What an amazing experience for the people (even if they were a little foolhardy!!) I love my Dissertation and little bits of intriguing information like this make it even better! Thank you. :-)

  9. I am in the throes of researching Historical Climatology for my University Dissertation. I found historical temperature data from 1684, which suggested a freezing over, then Google led me here! Totally fascinating! What an amazing experience for the people (even if they were a little foolhardy!!) I love my Dissertation and little bits of intriguing information like this make it even better! Thank you. :-)


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