The Last Frost Fair on the River Thames

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).

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The last frost fair in 1814

Hats off, Strangers!

The State Opening of Parliament is always an excellent opportunity to watch the British monarchy in action at what they do best: Pomp and pageantry! It marks the commencement of a session of Parliament including a speech by the monarch, outlining what measures and actions will be put into place by the government in the coming year. It is a ceremony full of rituals and symbolism dating back centuries, and therefore it is a must-see event for a British history buff like myself. ­čÖé Just in case you aren’t familiar with the proceedings, let me explain a few of the key parts of the ceremony.

Before the Queen arrives at the Houses of Parliament a ceremonial searching of the cellars is carried out by the Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest existing British military corp (not to be confused with the Yeomen Warders a.k.a. “Beefeaters”, who are guarding the Tower of London). This dates back to 1605, when on November 5 of that year the Catholic revolutionary Guy Fawkes and his accomplices were caught red-handed in the cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster, trying to blow up the House of Lords in an attempt to kill the Protestant king James I. Ever since then the cellars have been searched before the State Opening of Parliament.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who usually accompanies her to this event, arrive from Buckingham Palace in a carriage procession. Prior to that the Imperial State Crown is being taken to the Palace of Westminster in a separate State Coach to be worn by the Queen during her speech.

Once the Queen has put on the Parliament Robe of State and the Imperial State Crown in the robing chamber and has entered the House of Lords, she first addresses the House with the words “My Lords, pray be seated” and then instructs the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to summon the House of Commons. Black Rod walks down the corridor connecting both chambers, accompanied by an inspector of police who shouts “Hats off, strangers!” to the people watching along the way. Upon approaching the House of Commons the doors of the chamber are slammed shut in Black Rod’s face. This is due to the fact that ever since in 1642 King Charles I rushed into the House of Commons to have five members arrested for treason no monarch has been allowed to enter the House of Commons. Black Rod then knocks on the door to the chamber with his staff three times and is then allowed to enter. With the following words he commands the House of Commons to follow him to the House of Lords:┬á“Mister Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House [pauses to bow to both sides of the House] to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.” Usually this is greeted by an amusing remark from Labour MP Dennis Skinner (who is known for having been suspended from Parliament several times for using foul language) before the MPs set off in a casual procession down the corridor. Once they have arrived at the Bar of the House of Lords the Queen begins reading out her speech, which really isn’t her speech at all but has been written by the government. The speech concludes with the words: “My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels”. The Queen then leaves the House of Lords and the Commons return to their chamber for a debate on the speech, which concludes the proceedings.

If you’d like to watch today’s State Opening of Parliament, I recommend YouTube user belfastjack’s videos, who uploaded the entire BBC broadcast from this morning in four parts. Here’s the first: