When I first read about the River Thames frost fairs in a novel I was instantly fascinated by the idea. Living in a time and area where the winter is hardly ever cold enough for a small lake to freeze over solidly enough for ice-skating, it is a rather marvellous thought to have a mighty river such as the Thames freeze so solidly that even an elephant was able to cross it – this was done at the last Thames frost fair that lasted four days from February 1st, 1814.
Between the 1400s and the early 19th century the Thames froze over about 25 times. The flow of the river was much slower back then – ever since the old London Bridge with its huge pillars was dismantled, riverside marches have been drained and embankments erected, the river has been able to flow more freely and this combined with the mild winters of modern times makes it highly unlikely for the Thames to ever really freeze over again.
When it did, though, Londoners made the most of it and set up huts and stalls on the ice and turned the frozen river into a full-blown party location, unlicensed drinking and gambling being the main attractions. During the last frost fair of 1814, even printers set up shop with their presses on the ice to produce postcards and other printed memorabilia of the event. A small sheep was roasted and fair visitors charged to view it and its meat then sold as ‘Lapland mutton’.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though, even if the area between Blackfriars and London Bridge was lined with over 30 stalls and booths and the main throughfare quickly named ‘City Road’. The ground was still ice and ice can melt or break. A large chunk of it broke off near London Bridge and carried off a man and two boys, who were lucky enough to be rescued by fishermen at Billingsgate. Two women fell through the ice and were also rescued by Thames watermen (who also often charged people for entry to the fair) but a plumber carrying some lead wasn’t so lucky when he fell through the ice.
On the 5th of February the wind turned to the south and brought sleet, rain and warmer temperatures. The thaw was so quick that two men who went on the ice on the 6th fell in and were carried off before they could be rescued. This marked the end of the last frost fair on the Thames. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a time-machine now to be able to go and see this event for myself – actually, the frost fairs are such a huge part of London folklore that even The Doctor and a few of his companions went there in the TARDIS (only in the audio or printed adventures, though, sadly).