Frost Fairs on the Thames

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done.

Modern inscription carved under Southwark Bridge (Based on eighteenth century handbills)

We’re having some pretty shocking weather here. The Atlantic storms are sweeping in one after the other, bringing torrential rain and high winds. On the other side of the pond however there is a great freeze. So that got me thinking about the things people do to amuse themselves when bad weather disrupts everyday life.

From the Middle Ages right through to the early nineteenth century, the River Thames in London would sometimes freeze over – twenty four occasions are recorded in six hundred years – about once in a generation. Without the Embankment the river was more sluggish than it is today and the nineteen piers of old London Bridge also slowed up the flow. The boatmen who made their living by ferrying people and goods across the river were temporarily out of pocket so they often set up booths and stalls on the ice selling all manner of goods, street food and souvenirs. These were often printed leaflets and ballads. Little presses were set up and in the days before photographs people could buy something to show they were there.

You that walk here, and do desyn to tell
Your children's children what this year befell
Go print your names and take a dram within
For such a year as this, has seldom been seen. 


These were strictly unofficial fairs – a proper fair need a charter, but the Frost Fairs were immensely popular. The unlicensed fun included skittle alleys, gambling booths and closed off tents for the sort of frolics better conducted under downy covers.

John Evelyn the diarist described the Frost Fair of 1608:

'Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes,(skates) a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.'

That sounds like a lot of fun.

London like most cities was full of street hawkers and traders, the fairs meant that suddenly there was a captive market of excited people with a few pennies in their pockets, so buying street food was an important part of the fun. We know some of the things that were sold would be moulded gingerbread and spiced buns – traditional British fairground treats. Then there would no doubt be London specialties like jellied eels and in the nineteenth century pies and mash.  When the frost was particularly prolonged, sooner or later there would be a huge roasting spit set up. An ox, sheep or pig would be roasted whole. ‘Lapland Lamb’ was popular!

There was of course drink and it wasn’t all alcohol. The nearby coffee houses set up outposts selling hot chocolate and coffee and there would be mulled wine, cider and ale. On at least one occasion the ale froze and had to be sold by weight in chunks!

 ‘...folk do tipple without fear to sink 
More liquor than the fish beneath do drink' 

Iron skates were introduced from the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century but even before that boys tied specially shaved animal bones to the bottom of their boots in order to propel themselves across the ice at great speed.

Of course there were often disasters.

In January 1789, melting ice dragged at a ship anchored to a riverside inn, pulling the building down and crushing five people to death. There are many records of coaches being submerged and even the whole fair disappearing overnight.

This winter marks the hundredth anniversary of the very last Frost Fair. The 1814 Frost Fair commemorated above, was the last to be held after alterations to the river bank and bridges made the river flow more quickly. This was much to the delight of the warehouse and ship owners around the Upper Pool of London who were besieged by the ice when the river froze over and so couldn’t unload their goods.  The building of additional bridges meant the demise of the ferry trade and as we have seen before, Victorian morality meant that fairs in general were definitely to be suppressed.

So all we have are some wonderful images and a few souvenirs – and we can still make the food!

There were about 600 pie sellers in London in the seventeenth century. The men sold meat pies and jellied eels and women tended to sell fruit pies, dumplings and in the summer, fresh strawberries.

I've made two apple dumplings.

2 medium sized dessert apples
2 teaspoons soft butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 heaped tsp soft brown sugar.
10 oz approx shortcrust pastry
1 egg.

Make a paste of the butter, sugar and spices. Roll out the pastry. Peel and core the apples.
Dab the spice paste over the apples and in the hole made by removing the core. Wrap each apple in pastry and trim off the excess. Make leaves for decoration and brush the pastry with beaten egg.

Bake for about an hour until golden brown. Serve warm with cream.


Blow, blow, thou winter wind 
Thou art not so unkind 
As man's ingratitude; 
Thy tooth is not so keen, 
Because thou art not seen, 
Although thy breath be rude. 

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly: 
Most friendship if feigning, most loving mere folly: 
Then heigh-ho, the holly! 
This life is most jolly.

Extract from 'Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind' in 'As You Like It' (2.vii) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 

It's also the Feast of St Hilary this week and there's an earlier post about that with a warming soup.

St Hilary and a warming soup

Stay cosy. X

1 comment:

Rebecca Selman said...

The apple dumplings look very warming on such a cold day. In fact I'm just about to go and make the St Hilary cauliflower soup; it seemed an apt day on which to do it!