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Sunday, 3 January 2021

The Frost Fair of 1814

The Fair on the Thames Feb 4 1814  by Luke Clennell © Trustees of the British Museum  Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence
The Fair on the Thames Feb 4 1814
by Luke Clennell © The Trustees of the British Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
It seems hard to believe now, but the winter of 1813-14 was so harsh that the River Thames froze solid! The ice was firm enough not only for skating, but also for a fair – a great Frost Fair.

Printed on the ice

Title page of Frostiana by George Davis (1814)
Title page of Frostiana by George Davis (1814)
In his book, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state, George Davis gave a first-hand account of the great freeze and the Frost Fair. He wrote:
An introduction is prefixed, containing a full account of the late severe frost; and, in another part of the work, will be found an amusing narrative of the events which took place on the frozen surface of the Thames, from the 30th of January to the 5th of February inclusive.

As an additional object of curiosity, it may be proper to mention, that a large impression of the Title page of this work, was actually printed on the ice on the River Thames!!1
Freezing fog
A London fog drawn by Duncan in Illustrated London News Vol 10 1847  Wellcome Foundation Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC-BY-4.0)
A London fog drawn by Duncan in Illustrated London News Vol 10 1847
Wellcome Foundation Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC-BY-4.0)
The great frost started just after Christmas, 1813, and was accompanied by a freezing fog. The conditions sound perfect as a setting for a Regency mystery novel.
The great fog which preceded the late frost, commenced in London, on the evening of the 27th December, 1813 … This tremendous fog, or ‘darkness that might be felt!’ continued till the 3rd of January. On most of the roads, excepting the high north road, travelling was performed with the utmost danger, and the progress of the mails was greatly impeded.2
The conditions for pedestrians were perilous:
Pedestrians even carried links or lanterns, and many, who were not provided with these illuminators, lost themselves in the most frequented, and at other times well known streets. Hackney-coachmen mistook the pathway for the road, and vice versa, - the greatest confusion occurring.

On the 31st of December, the state of the metropolis, in consequence of the increased fog, was, at night, truly alarming. It required great attention and knowledge of the public streets to proceed any distance, and those persons who had any material business to transact were unavoidably compelled to carry torches. The usual lamps appeared through the haze no bigger than small candles. The more careful hackney-coachmen got off the box and led their horses, while others drove only at a walking pace. There were frequent meetings of carriages, and great mischief ensued. Among the passengers much caution and apprehension prevailed. Many alarmed at the idea of being run down, made exclamations, such as ‘Who is coming?’ – ‘Mind!’ – ‘Take care!’ &c. Females who had ventured abroad before the fog came on, were placed under great peril; several missed their way.3
Snow and ice

When the fog lifted, the snow came.
Almost immediately on the cessation of the fogs, heavy falls of snow took place. There is nothing in the memory of man to equal these falls. After several shorter intervals, the snow continued incessantly for 48 hours, and this too after the ground was covered with a condensation, the result of nearly four weeks continued frost. Almost the whole of the time the wind blew from the north and north-east, and was intensely cold.4
Travel was disrupted, water-pipes froze, icicles formed ‘full a yard and a half long’.
The Thames, from London Bridge to Blackfriars, was for nearly a fortnight completely blocked up at ebb tide. All the ponds and rivers in the neighbourhood of London were completely frozen, and skating was pursued with great avidity on the Canal in St James’s, and the Serpentine in Hyde Park.5
Feltham’s Picture of London for 1818 wrote:
In severe winters, when the Serpentine River is frozen over, the ice is almost covered with people. In the winter of 1813-14, there were counted more than 6,000 people at one time on the ice, chiefly skaiters.6
A scene on the ice by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)  © The Trustees of the Brititsh Museum  Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence
A scene on the ice by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
© The Trustees of the Brititsh Museum
Used under Creative Commons Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Mail disrupted
Never since the establishment of mail coaches did correspondence meet with such general interruption as on this occasion. Internal communication was completely at a stand till the roads could be in some degree cleared; for besides the drifts by which they were rendered impassable, the whole face of the country presented one uniform sheet of snow, no trace of road being discoverable; and travellers had to make their path at the risk of being every moment overwhelmed. Waggons, carts, coaches, and vehicles of all descriptions, were left in the midst of the storm. The drivers finding they could proceed no farther, took the horses to the first convenient place, and there waited till a passage could be cut to enable them to proceed with safety.7
The thaw and refreeze
On Wednesday the 26th, the wind having veered round to the south-west, the effects of a thaw were speedily discernible … On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the 27th, 28th, and 29th, the thaw continued, and the roads and streets were nearly impassable from floods, and the accumulation of snow. But on Sunday the 30th a sharp frost set in, and continued till the next Saturday evening, the 5th of February.

Sunday, January 30
Some venturous persons even now walked on different parts of the ice.

Monday, January 31
During the whole of the afternoon, hundreds of people were assembled on Blackfriars’ and London Bridges, to see several adventurous men cross and recross the Thames on the ice; at one time seventy persons were counted walking from Queenhithe to the opposite shore.

Tuesday, Feb 1
The floating masses of ice … having been stopped by London Bridge, now assumed the shape of a solid surface over that part of the river which extends from Blackfriars’ Bridge to some distance below Three Crane Stairs, at the bottom of Queen-street, Cheapside. The watermen taking advantage of this circumstance, placed notices at the end of all the streets leading to the city side of the river, announcing a safe footway over the river, which, as might be expected, attracted immense crowds to witness so novel a scene. Many were induced to venture on the ice, and the example thus afforded, soon led thousands to perambulate the rugged plain, where a variety of amusements were prepared for their entertainment.
Among the more curious of these was the ceremony of roasting a small sheep, which was toasted, or rather burnt, over a coal fire, placed in a large iron pan. For a view of this extraordinary spectacle, sixpence was demanded, and willingly paid. The delicate meat when done, was sold at a shilling a slice, and termed Lapland mutton. Of booths there were a great number, which were ornamented with streamers, flags, and signs, and in which there was a plentiful store of those favourite luxuries, gin, beer, and gingerbread.8
The Frost Fair
Frost fair on the River Thames in 1814  from Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs by WAndrews (1887)
Frost fair on the River Thames in 1814
from Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs by W Andrews (1887)
Wednesday, Feb 2
The same sports were repeated, and the Thames presented a complete Frost Fair. The grand mall or walk was from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge; this was named ‘The City Road,’ and lined on each side with tradesmen of all descriptions. Eight or ten printing presses were erected, and numerous pieces commemorative of the ‘great Frost’ were actually printed on the ice.

Thursday, Feb 3
The adventurers were still more numerous. Swings, bookstalls, dancing in a barge, suttling-booths, playing at skittles, and almost every appendage of a fair on land was now transferred to the Thames. Thousands of people flocked to behold this singular spectacle, and to partake of the various sports and pastimes. The ice now became like a solid rock of adamant, and presented a truly 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 were upheaved, and these fragments bore a strong resemblance to the rude interior of a stone quarry.9
A suttling booth was a mobile stall where civilians sold provisions and other small items to soldiers.
Friday, Feb 4
Every 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. Books and toys labelled ‘bought on the Thames’ were seen in profusion. The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of 2d. or 3d. before he was admitted to the Frost Fair; some douceur also was expected on your return. These men were said to have taken 6l each in the course of a day.

Many persons were seen on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly picturesque and beautiful. With a little stretch of imagination, we might have transported ourselves to the frozen climes of the north—to Lapland, Sweden or Holland.

Saturday, Feb 5
The morning of this day augured rather unfavourably for the continuance of Frost Fair. The wind had shifted to the south, and a light fall of snow took place. The visitors of the Thames, however, were not to be deterred by trifles. Thousands again returned, and there was much life and bustle on the frozen element.

The footpath in the centre of the river was hard and secure, and among the pedestrians we observed four donkeys which trotted at a nimble pace and produced considerable merriment. At every glance, the spectator met with some pleasing novelty. Gaming in all its branches threw out different allurements, while honesty was out of the question. Many of the itinerant admirers of the profit gained by E O Tables, Rouge et Noir, Te-totum, wheel of fortune, the garter, &c were industrious in their avocations, leaving their kind customers without a penny to pay their passage over a plank to the shore.

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 round large fires, drinking rum, grog, and other spirits. Tea, coffee, and eatables, were provided in ample order, while the passengers were invited to eat by way of recording their visit. Several respectable tradesmen also attended with their wares, selling books, toys, and trinkets of every description.

Towards the evening, the concourse became thinned; rain fell in some quantity; Maister Ice gave some loud cracks, and floated with the printing presses, booths, &c to the no small dismay of publicans, typographers, &c. In short, this icy palace of Momus, this fairy frost work, was soon to be dissolved, and doomed to vanish, like the baseless fabric of a vision, ‘but leaving some wrecks behind.’10
Frost on the Thames 1814 from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
Frost on the Thames 1814 from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
The end of the Frost Fair
Sunday, February 6
At two o’clock this morning, the tide began to flow with great rapidity at London Bridge; the thaw assisted the efforts of the tide, and the booth just mentioned was hurried along with the quickness of lightning towards Blackfriars Bridge.
On this day, the Thames towards high tide (about 3 p.m.) presented a very tolerable idea of the Frozen Ocean; grand masses of ice floating along, added to the great height of the water, and afforded a striking sight for contemplation. Thousands of disappointed persons thronged the banks; - and many a ’prentice boy and servant maid, ‘sighed unutterable things’ at the sudden and unlooked-for destruction of Frost Fair.

Monday, Feb 7
Large masses of ice are yet floating, and numerous lighters, broken from their moorings, are seen in different parts of the river; many of them complete wrecks. The damage done to the craft and barges is supposed to be very great. From London Bridge to Westminster, twenty thousand pounds will scarcely make good the losses that have been sustained.12

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Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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1. Davis, George, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state (1814).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
7. Davis op cit.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.

Sources used include:
Andrews, William, Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain (1887)
Davis, George, Frostiana; or a history of the River Thames in a frozen state (1814)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 3

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