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39: London's Frost Fairs

If you have ever walked along the South Bank between Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market then you would have walked under Southwark Bridge. In the pedestrian underpass you may have noticed five large pieces of slate along the southern wall. The slates have been engraved by Richard Kindersley and shows a scene of a long lost London event; the Frost Fair.

Recommended Reading:

 

Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

 

If you have ever walked along the Southbank between Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market then you would have walked under Southwark Bridge. In the pedestrian underpass you may have noticed five large pieces of slate along the southern wall. The slates have been engraved by Richard Kindersley (who also did Seven stages of Man which can be seen at BT Baynard’s House, Blackfriars) and shows a scene of a long lost London event; the Frost Fair.

 

Frost Fairs 

The slate engravings show a map of the area surrounding the section of frozen Thames with fun pictures of the impromptu market stalls and Londoners having a gay ‘ole time.

 

Why did the river Thames freeze over?

In our Episode 35: A Tudor Christmas you might remember me mentioning about the “Little Ice Age”.

 

What was a Frost Fair?

In modern terms? A pop-up!

The frost fair offered plenty of attractions including a whole ox roasted on the ice, stilt walking, the hunting of a fox, and even a printing booth providing people with a souvenir of their visit. Charles II’s visit was recorded with a printed memento which is now in the Museum of London (view here)

 

What would going to a Frost Fair be like?

If you want to get a sense (and I mean only a sense) of what the last Frost Fair of 1814 may have been like then you can watch a few minutes of Dr Who (series 10, episode 3) Where Dr Who parks his Tardis on 1814, on Blackfriars Bridge and, along with his companion Clara, enjoys the delights of the frost fair. Culinary delights on offer include “tasty ox cheek”, Lapland mutton roasted on a spit on the ice and “juicy sheep hearts”

 

Depictions show smooth ice but would have been very different; a jumbled mass of ice, one black on top of the other. A wonderful example of this can be seen in an oil on canvas painting by Abraham Hondius entitled A Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs.’ which is in the Museum of London’s permanent collection. (see here)

 

Did Frost Fairs happen every time the Thames froze over?

How you you know when the Frost Fairs occurred?

Printing Presses

 

Which was London’s most famous Frost Fair?

The Thames and Its Tributaries, 1840, Charles Mackay:

The London Picture Archive has a wonderful engraving of the river Thames 1683-84 frost fair. It shows a wonderful display of people eating, drinking and using entertainment booths which stretch across the ice. You can see figures travelling by horse-drawn coach, skates, boats with wheels and boats transformed into sledges. The item has been divided into 45 playing cards with instructions in the margins. These cards weren’t printed until 1716, so it goes to show that the Frost Fair of 1683/84 was a talking point for many years!

(Frost Fair image 1716:  Catalogue no. p7499451 Record no. 28026)

Why does the river Thames not freeze anymore?

  1. The old London Bridge was demolished in 1831 and the new design had a lot fewer arches and therefore allowing the Thames to flow freely, unlike the old London Bridge.
  2. Industrialisation played a part too; the arrival of the power stations made it sure that the water would never cool down enough to freeze ever again.
  3. The Thames itself has been embanked forcing the Thames to be narrower and therefore deeper and faster.
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