Between 1608 and 1814 London played host to the great “frost fairs”, on occasions when the winters were sufficiently cold for the Thames to freeze over. The most famous and long-lasting of these was during the winter of 1683-4, widely reported to be the coldest winter ever experienced in British history. However, there was another to rival it, the winter of 1708-9:
I believe this frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within memory of man. The greatest that happen’d within our memory, was the Long Frost in 1683; but the late frost, although of shorter continuance, was more intense than that.
That was the opinion of the Reverend Mr. W. Derham, Rector of Upminster, writing in the Royal Society of London Journal. He offered detailed statistics and anecdotal evidence to support his claim, but more interesting is his account of the frozen Thames:
The waters we may easily imagine were the first thing that felt the dire effects of this frost. And these were in many places frozen to an extraordinary depth; although I hardly believe to that depth, as in the long-frost in 1683. Of which frost we have a sufficient instance in our River of Thames; whose waters were so frozen, that above Bridge, ’tis well known, many booths were erected, fires made, and meat dress’d; and on January 10 1684, I my self saw a coach and two horses drive over the river into Southwark, and back again, a great number of people accompanying it. But this last winter the case was greatly different, according to this account I received from my learned and ingenious friend Mr Lowthorp; who saith, “he saw several people cross the Thames at some distance above the Bridge: but that was only towards low-water, when the great flakes of ice that came down, stopp’d one another at the Bridge, ’till they made one continued bed of ice from thence almost to the Temple. But when the flood came, the ice broke, and was all carried with the current up the river. I was told the like happened between Westminster and Lambeth, a little above White-hall.”
As for other waters, they also had their share; especially where they lay exposed to the northerly and north easterly winds. Nay, the sea waters themselves escaped not, but were covered with ice in many places near the shore, in harbours, and where they lay calm and still.
The archives of the Royal Society of London Journal are a mine of information and opinion from the past. The journal was established in 1665, and was the first exclusively scientific journal in the world. Remarkably, it has remained in continuous publication ever since.