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The port in literature

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Frost fair 'poetry'

The frost fairs

The Fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814.
View full size imageThe Fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814. © NMM
The Thames frost fairs were a source of great pleasure for most Londoners, but they also generated some of the worst poems ever written in the English language.

To be fair, most of the verses that have survived did not pretend to be great poetry, but merely sought to advertise services.

Crimes in print

Printers produced the worst drivel. During the first great frost fair in 1683/84, printers earned large sums by producing souvenirs. It seems that none of this money was spent on commissioning a half-decent poem. Instead, the following epic has survived:

Quotation marks left
To the Print-house go,
Where men the art of Printing soon do know,
Where for a Teaster, you may have your name
Printed, hereafter for to show the same:
And sure, in former Ages, ne’er ‘was found
Quotation marks right

A Press to print where men so oft were droun’d!

Although printers thrived during every subsequent frost fair, the literary side of their business had clearly not improved by the time of the frost fair of 1740:

Quotation marks left
Behold the liquid Thames now frozen o’er
That lately SHIPS of mighty burden bore.
Here you PRINT your name tho’ cannot write
‘Cause numbe’d with cold: ‘Tis done with great delight.
Quotation marks right

And lay it by: That AGES yet to come
May see what THINGS upon the ICE were done.

Advertising frost fair fast food

Not all promotional poems were so bad. A broadsheet from the 1684 frost fair, advertising the Stuart equivalent of a fast food stall, succeeds in being both informative and witty.

Quotation marks left
Kind master, drink you beer, or ale or brandy?
Walk in, kind sir, this booth is the chief,
We’ll entertain you with a slice of beef,
And what you please to eat or drink, ‘tis here,
No booth, like mine, affords such dainty cheer;
Another crys, Here master, they but scoff ye,
Here is a dish of famous new made coffee.
Quotation marks right

And some do say a giddy senseless ass
May on the Thames be furnished with a lass.
Loftier thoughts

View of the frozen Thames off Three Cranes Wharf.
View full size imageView of the frozen Thames off Three Cranes Wharf. © NMM

Sometimes the spectacle of the frozen river would inspire writing of a less blatantly commercial nature.

Unfortunately, the loftier thoughts were not necessarily expressed through great words, as shown in this verse from January 1716:

Quotation marks left
Behold the Power of a God! Which locks,
In close Confinement, under pond’rous Rocks
Of dreadful Ice and Snow, our famous Thames;
Quotation marks right

Whose matchless Glory all the World proclaims


The watermen's relief

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 frost fairs were fun only for those not employed in the port or on the river. The frozen Thames brought unemployment and severe hardship to many.

It is not surprising that these people welcomed the thaws that ended the frost fairs and allowed them to resume work.

'The Watermen’s Song upon the Thaw', which appeared after the end of the 1684 frost fair, expressed the genuine relief they felt:

Quotation marks left
Come ye merry men all
Of Watermen’s Hall
Let’s hoist our boats and caressing;
The Thames it does melt,
And the coalde is scarce felt,
Quotation marks right

Not an icicle is now to be seen.


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