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What Were the River Thames Frost Fairs?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon325189 — On Mar 14, 2013

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.

By elizabeth23 — On Dec 19, 2011

@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.

By FernValley — On Dec 18, 2011

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.

By Catapult — On Dec 18, 2011

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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