The River Thames Frost Fairs were an assortment of festivals held on the Thames between 1608-1814. The Frost Fairs were enabled by a total freeze of the river, allowing people to walk and drive on it. Many contemporary authors wrote about the Frost Fairs, and the events of the fairs are often integrated into historical fiction since they were so memorable. In some years, historical revival groups stage replicas of the Frost Fairs, although they no longer have access to a frozen river to hold them on.
During the period marked by the Frost Fairs, the climate of Britain was significantly colder than it is now. This period in European history is sometimes called the “Little Ice Age,” in a reference to the prevailing cooler temperatures. The River Thames, which flows through the city of London, repeatedly froze over during this period; hard freezes have been documented as early as 250 CE, with contemporaries writing about walking, sledding, and driving on the frozen river. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I apparently enjoyed trips along the frozen Thames, walking on the ice and taking sleighs along part of its length.
The condition of the River Thames was also markedly different than it is today. The wide banks of the river promoted sluggish movement, which would have allowed the river to freeze over more rapidly. In addition, the configuration of bridges in the river was very different, leading to a distinctly different water level and rate of flow from that seen today.
The first recorded Frost Fair was in 1608, and it seems to have been a relatively small affair. Visitors to the fair could play games, eat food, purchase beverages, and visit a variety of stalls. The biggest and most famous Frost Fair occurred in 1683/84, lasting for several months in total and featuring a wide range of diversions. However, contemporaries wrote that this Frost Fair carried a hidden cost; pollution increased greatly due to open fires, for example, and neighboring parks were stripped of game.
The festivals on the ice would have been a pleasant way to wile away an afternoon for English people of all classes. King and nobles visited the Frost Fairs alongside less fortunate members of British society, with many people purchasing souvenirs to commemorate their attendance. After the 1814 Frost Fair, the Thames failed to freeze over enough to permit a fair, making the Frost Fairs a historical event which seems unlikely to be repeated.