PortCities London

Freak weather and the port

The Thames frost fairs
 

Old London Bridge

Old London Bridge, with river craft and warehouses.
View full size imageOld London Bridge with river craft and warehouses, by Edward William Cooke.    © NMM

Although there were many cold winters in the past, the Thames froze over only because of the old London Bridge.

Completed in 1176, this was the first stone bridge across the Thames in London. Its 19 narrow arches slowed the flow of the river and made it more likely that the water could freeze during long and severe winters. The river froze over here more than 20 times up to 1814.

The first 'frost fair' 

King Charles II.
View full size imageKing Charles II (1630-85), by Sir Peter Lely. © NMM

In 1564, archery and dancing took place on the Thames, but the first real 'frost fair' came in 1683. The river froze over in December, and stayed frozen for two months.

Londoners soon took to the ice, and enterprising businessmen cashed in by providing entertainments for the visitors. Traders set up two parallel rows of stalls between the banks of the river.

A whole ox was roasted on the ice, and even Charles II and his family visited the fair.

 

The later frost fairs 

The Fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814.
View full size imageThe Fair on the Thames, 4 February 1814. © NMM

Because only prolonged and severe winters could make the Thames freeze over, frost fairs were quite rare.

However, further fairs took place in 1715-16, 1739-40 and 1813-14.

Each time, the attractions became more varied and better organized.

The entertainments on the ice included:

  • fairground rides - swings, merry-go-rounds
  • sports - football, hockey, skittles, horse races
  • musicians and singers
  • spectacles such as the roasting of a sheep or an ox
  • food and souvenir stalls.  

Winners and losers

View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf when Frozen Monday 31st January to Saturday 5th February 1814.
View full size image View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf... 1814. © NMM

The frost fairs were a delight for most Londoners and a great commercial opportunity for some. The stallholders and those who provided the entertainments did very well.

With so many people eager to buy any souvenir of the fairs, traders soon learned to raise their prices. As one popular rhyme stated:

'What you can buy for threepence on the shore, will cost your fourpence on the Thames, or more.'

The miseries of London ... being assailed by a group of watermen.
View full size imageThe miseries of London ... being assailed by a group of watermen, by Thomas Rowlandson. © NMM
The watermen, deprived of their normal trade, also took advantage. In many cases they broke the ice near the river bank and charged visitors tolls to step onto the ice.

However, the ice was a disaster for the port, as ships could not enter the Upper Pool. Those whose livelihoods depended on the port found themselves out of work. As trade ground to a halt, coal and many other goods became scarce. In 1739-40 the Lord Mayor was forced to launch an appeal to help those affected by the big freeze.

The new London Bridge

Hay barge near London Bridge.
View full size imageThe spans of Rennie's London Bridge, opened in 1831. © NMM

The frost fair of 1813-14 was the last. In 1831 the old London Bridge was replaced by John Rennie's new bridge.

This had far wider arches, which improved the flow of the river and made it impossible for the Upper Pool to freeze over, even during the most severe winters.

 

 

 





   Back to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and steamships
**
*