London Frost Fairs

Posted by Hazel Baker on Wednesday, December 29, 2021 Under: Art

London Frost Fairs

When walking along the pedestrian underpass of Southwark bridge you may have noticed five large pieces of slate along the southern wall. The slates have been beautifully engraved by artist Richard Kindersley and shows a fun scene of a long-lost London event; the Frost Fair. 

The large 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. 

The scenes include a man playing skittles, a printing press and even a cow on a spit over a fire, yes, on the ice. 

Charles Mackay in "The Thames and its Tributaries", 1840 lists the Thames freezing over 12 times between 250 and 1114 but fails to share his sources. 

Toni Mount describes the Great Freeze of 1309 in Chroniques de London (A Year in the Life of Medieval England) "There was such cold and such masses and piles of ice on the Thames and everywhere else that the poor were overcome by excessive cold and bread covered with straw otherwise unprotected could not be eaten unless warmed...The river froze so solidly, bonfires could be lit on it" It's amazing to think of great chunks of ice emerging from the river, it wasn't all smooth ice as if on a frozen lake. 

Why did the river Thames freeze over?

The whole Thames didn't freeze solid, it was just the section between Blackfriars Bridge and the old London Bridge that was susceptible to freezing. The old London Bridge (1176-1825) acted as a weir and more or less prevented tides and salt water passing that point. 

All the Frost Fairs took place upstream of Old London Bridge, because the old London Bridge with its 19 arches slowed the flow of the river, and therefore precipitated freezing.

The year 1816, for example,  is known as "the year without a summer. Low temperatures and heavy rains ruined the harvests and caused widespread famine and assisted a typhoid epidemic. 

1564-65 Both Stow and Holinshead report a very severe winter where at New Years, the river Thames was frozen over from London Bridge to Westminster. It's during the same year that Elizabeth I is reported to have won at targets (archery) on the ice. 

In our London History podcast episode no 35: A Tudor Christmas you might remember me mentioning about the "Little Ice Age". This refers to a period between C14th and C19th where the climate in Europe and North America cooled dramatically. Winters became colder and weather was more extreme; storms, gales, weeks of rain and the aftermath of floods and long droughts became all too common.

If you're interested in learning more about frost fairs listen to our podcast episode on Frost Fairs.

In : Art 

Tags: frost fair 


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