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The Last London Frost Fair


March 2014



 

Roy and Lesley Adkins describe the week of festivities and amusements enjoyed by Londoners in 1814 and the dramatic thaw that followed.



In London, there had been freezing temperatures from 27 December, and as the new year of 1814 was ushered in with the usual celebrations, a hard frost and thick fog enveloped the city. On 8 January, the wind changed and the fog cleared, although the frost remained, and ice began to form on the river Thames. Towards the end of the month, immense blocks of ice accumulated around the narrow arches of London Bridge and by the morning of Sunday 30 January, the Thames was freezing over so hard that several people dared to walk on the ice. Two days later, the ice was solid from Blackfriars Bridge downstream to Cranes Stairs and – as stated by the Morning Chronicle – people began to cross the ice and set up stalls and booths. The next day an impromptu fair was in full swing.

The watermen, who could not work because of the conditions, took control of the safe entry points onto the ice and charged a toll to pass. All kinds of amusements were on offer, as the newspapers reported:

The foot-path in the centre of the river was hard and secure, and among the pedestrians we observed four donkies, which trotted a nimble pace, and produced considerable merriment...Kitchen fires and furnaces were blazing and boiling in every direction, and animals from a sheep to a rabbit, and a goose to a lark, were turning on numberless spits...

A 'dancing-room' was established on one barge that was stuck fast in the solid ice some distance from the shore, and there were other places for dancing on the frozen river, along with gambling establishments and market stalls:

Skittles was played by several parties and the drinking tents filled by females and their companions dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat around large fires drinking rum, grog and other spirits...

Thousands of people were drawn to the unusual spectacle, which was like the world turned upside down. Normal rules and regulations seemed irrelevant and an almost anarchical spirit prevailed. The booths selling food and drink were unlicensed and untaxed, something many of them proudly proclaimed on sign boards.

Although the ice appeared solid, it was unwise to walk on areas away from the main fair, as one man found:

near to Blackfriars Bridge the passage did not seem so equally safe, for one young man, a plumber named Davis...sunk between two masses of ice, to rise no more.

Some of those who fell through the ice were rescued, but others disappeared completely.

After nearly a week of festivities, rain fell on Saturday 5 February and the next day a dramatic thaw occurred. Frost conditions persisted almost to the end of March, but the ice on the river quickly dispersed leaving only a few ephemeral souvenirs and contemporary accounts to bear witness to the event. London Bridge, with its narrow arches, was demolished in 1831 once a replacement bridge had been built upstream, and with the improved flow of water and the later embanking of the river, the Thames never completely froze over again. The Great Frost Fair of February 1814 proved to be London's very last one.


For more articles like this visit http://www.discoveryourhistory.net/



 

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