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What Were the River Thames Frost Fairs?

The River Thames Frost Fairs were a series of winter festivals held on London's main waterway during the Little Ice Age, when the river froze solid. These fairs featured markets, games, and even elephant crossings! They're a testament to human resilience and festivity in the face of harsh winters. Curious about how Londoners celebrated on ice? Join us to explore further.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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 River Thames repeatedly froze between 1608-1814.
The River Thames repeatedly froze between 1608-1814.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the River Thames Frost Fairs?

The River Thames Frost Fairs were festive gatherings that took place during the winter months when the surface of the River Thames in London froze solid enough to support the weight of people. These fairs were held intermittently between the 17th and early 19th centuries, with the most famous ones occurring in 1683-84, 1716, 1739-40, 1789, and 1814. They featured a variety of activities, including markets, games, and even temporary pubs set up on the ice.

How often did the Thames freeze to allow for Frost Fairs?

The Thames froze over several times during the Little Ice Age (a period of cooler temperatures that lasted from the 14th to the 19th century), but not every freeze led to a Frost Fair. There were at least five major fairs recorded, with the last one taking place in 1814. The freezing of the river became less frequent with the introduction of the embankments in the 19th century, which increased the flow and prevented the river from freezing over completely.

What caused the River Thames to freeze solid enough for Frost Fairs?

The River Thames used to freeze over during the Little Ice Age due to a combination of factors. The colder climate of the time lowered temperatures significantly. Additionally, the old London Bridge had many piers and arches that slowed the flow of the river, making it more susceptible to freezing. The wider, shallower river also contributed to the ease of freezing. However, changes to the river's flow and the end of the Little Ice Age meant that such freezes no longer occur.

What kinds of activities and entertainment were available at the Frost Fairs?

Thames Frost Fairs were lively events with a carnival-like atmosphere. They offered a wide range of activities, including ice skating, nine-pin bowling, fox hunting on the ice, and dancing. Vendors sold food, drinks, and souvenirs, while printers set up presses to print keepsakes. There were also performances, puppet shows, and even temporary pubs and coffee houses established directly on the river's frozen surface.

When did the last River Thames Frost Fair take place and why was it the last?

The last Frost Fair on the River Thames took place in February 1814 and lasted for four days. It was the last because structural changes to the river, such as the replacement of the medieval London Bridge with a new bridge with fewer piers and the construction of the Victoria and Albert Embankments, increased the flow of the river, preventing it from freezing over. Additionally, the climate began to warm up after the end of the Little Ice Age.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon325189

My favorite place to skate is right by the Thames. It's got a little market and everything so I guess it's a lot like that.

elizabeth23

@FernValley- I hated it when I read about things in books, thought I could do them, and then found out I couldn't.

I do encourage you to see the Thames, though, even though you can't skate on it. It was really polluted for a long time, but these days I think it beautiful, and there are a lot of cool and historic sites along it.

FernValley

I read a book when I was a kid where the River Thames was frozen. I forget what book it was, but at the time I thought it was normal and actually thought I could go ice skating there if I went to London in the winter. Imagine my disappointment when I realized it hadn't been possible for over a century!

Still, there is a lot of ice skating in London and the rest of England, on ponds and lakes and just on rinks indoors and outdoors. I do hope to ice skate in London at some point, even though I can't do it on the Thames, most likely.

Catapult

It's interesting to me how the river Thames has changed. While at one point it could freeze entirely, these days England had to deal with a lot of flooding, especially in London near the Thames. Many people attribute this to global climate change, and I feel inclined to agree, though that doesn't make it any easier to solve the problems.

I don't think anyone is going to find a silver lining for flooding, though, the way that people did in the 1600s to 1800s with the Frost Fairs when it froze.

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    • The River Thames repeatedly froze between 1608-1814.
      By: TTstudio
      The River Thames repeatedly froze between 1608-1814.