Christmas History 36. Between the 15th and 19th Centuries the River Thames in London froze over more than 20 times, often leading to celebrations on the ice known as “frost fairs”. The last time this ever happened was the year 1814. Strictly speaking this is of course nothing to do with Christmas. The frost fair of 1814 started on 1st February and continued for a few days. But I think it is a subject that will be enjoyed at this time of year, so let’s look at some newspaper articles from the time. The first is from Saunders News-Letter, from 1st February 1814:
It was last week publicly proclaimed by the bell-man of Hammersmith that there would be held fair on the Thames, between that place and Kew Bridge, the whole being deeply frozen across. There is to be dancing and various other amusements, and a sheep will be roasted whole upon the ice, which it to be cut up and distributed among the poor of the neighbourhood. Numerous gangs of labourers have been employed on all the great roads, to remove the depths of snow, so that a general communication with the capital may be hourly looked for, if there be no farther fall of snow.
The next day, the following article appeared in the Morning Post:
The river Thames was completely frozen over yesterday. Opposite to Queenhithe, booths of various descriptions were erected, for the vending of spirits, porter, ale, &c. No less than 2,000 persons were on the ice at one time. Many persons, by imprudently venturing too far, were immersed in the water, by the ice giving way. We learn, however, that no person was actually drowned, although, it is said, two coopers were all but.
A similar news report appeared in the Worcester Journal, on 3rd February:
The river Thames has presented today more novel sight than it has done for many years before. The whole of the river opposite to Queenhithe was completely frozen over, and in some parts the ice was several feet thick, and in others so thin that it was extremely dangerous to venture to stand on it. Notwithstanding, crowds of foot passengers crossed backward and forward throughout the whole of the day. Several booths were erected on the ice, for the carrying on of trade, but the publicans and spirit dealers were more in receipt of custom. We have not heard of any lives having been lost, but many of the adventurers near Blackfriars Bridge were immersed the water by the ice giving way. Two coopers were with difficulty saved.
There were obviously dangers associated with a frost fair, but what happened when the thaw began? Were people sensible enough to get off the ice in time? We will find out next week.
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