Between 1400 and 1814, The River Thames froze over approximately 26 times. The Great Freeeze of 1683-1684 prompted the first commercial and full scale “Frost Fair”. Taken advantage of the thick layer of ice covering the Thames, stalls selling everything from printers to barbers, butchers to bakers set up tents to ply their wares. Games were played across the ice, and ice skating and “chair pushing” were available to the masses, and puppet shows and other raucous activities available for children and adults alike.
The last Frost Fair (excepting the revivals from the last decade) was held in the Regency era in 1814, before the old Tower Bridge was replaced with a more efficient, larger bridge that allowed the flow to eliminate opportunities for the River to freeze over.
To demonstrate the safety of crossing the River, an elephant was led across from one side to another near Blackfriars Bridge.
The ice passageway was dubbed, for the time of the Frost, as “city road”. Tents and stalls were decorated with ‘flags of all nations, streamers and signs’ and kitchens and furnaces were set up offering roasted lamb, rabbits, geese and sausages. Drinks on offer included gin (blue ruin) and beer. On some of the stalls, humorous signs beckoned: ‘for sale – no land rent and no ground rent’.
A barge which had been marooned in the middle of the river was converted into a dancing room.
The ice was not entirely solid in places, as some discovered when they strayed away from the area marked out by stalls and activity. At least three men were said to have fallen into the river, disappearing below the ice and drowning. On the 5th of January, there was sudden shifting of ice by the incoming tide which took away the booths and resulted in a number of people having to be rescued from the floating ice, unceremoniously closing the final Frost Fair.
There is a wonderful collection of novellas set at the last Frost Fair, which honestly I can’t remember the title of and after an hour or two of searching have failed to find it. Needless to say, there are novellas that use the Frost Fair as a setting, and its a delightful foray from the typical Spring season.