Wednesday 29 November: Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames - Nicholas Reed



It is 200 years ago since the last "frost fair" - an impromptu festival on a frozen Thames, complete with dancing, skittles and temporary pubs. Londoners stood on the Thames eating gingerbread and sipping gin. The party on the frozen river had begun on 1 February and would carry on for another four days.

The ice was thick enough to support printing presses churning out souvenirs. Oxen were roasted in front of roaring fires, drink was liberally taken and dances were held. An elephant was marched across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge. It was February 1814. George III was on the throne, Lord Liverpool was prime minister and the Napoleonic wars would soon be won.

People didn't know it then but this "frost fair" - a cross between a Christmas market, circus and illegal rave - would be the last. In the 200 years that have elapsed since, the Thames has never frozen solid enough for such hedonism to be repeated. But between 1309 and 1814, the Thames froze at least 23 times and on five of these occasions - 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789 and 1814 - the ice was thick enough to hold a fair.

The fair came about through necessity. London was the pre-eminent port in the world. But without a navigable Thames many livelihoods were at risk.
When the river froze, the watermen, who transported people along the Thames, and the lightermen, who moved goods, lost their ability to earn. They followed the tradition of their forebears and organised a frost fair, charging traders and punters for access to the ice.

The Times of 2 February 1814 reported that "in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon". The action was focused between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge in the heart of the city. Activities were various. An illustration from 1684 shows figures "throwing at cocks", hunting a fox, bull-baiting, sledging and nine-pin bowling.

But by 1814 food and drink seemed to be the main draw. The highlight was the roast ox. Mutton was also served - both in slices and in mince pies. Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were on sale. But alcohol permeated the occasion. Ginger bread vendors sold cups of gin. A particularly strong gin was called Old Tom - records describe it as "incredibly ardent".

Text extracted from BBC online Magazine 28 January 2014



about our lecturer:

Nicholas started as a classicist and Roman archaeologist, and has degrees in these subjects.
As well as lecturing for NADFAS, he was also Founder-Chairman of the Friends of Shakespeare's Globe 1985-87.
He is the author of many books, including a 49 page book entitled "Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames", which are published by his own press company the Lilburne Press
His first book, published in 1987, was on Camille Pissarro's paintings of the Crystal Palace area of South London. His next was on Pissarro in West London. Many more were to follow covering Sisley and Monet's work in London, as well as subjects connected to Kent, where he now lives.