A London Frost Fair


It has been a mild winter here in London and now trees are budding fast, although my father, born on the first of May, always said he was ‘born in a heatwave, christened in a snowstorm.’ So who knows what might happen yet?

In the winter of 1815, following an immense freezing fog, the Thames solidified. The people of London held a Frost Fair, with skittles, booths and dancing, and the roasting of a whole sheep referred to as ‘Lapland Mutton’, whose cooked flesh was sold for a shilling a slice. There were even funfair rides, with whirling chairs spun on long ropes around stakes hammered into the ice. There were streamers, flags and an immense number of signs.

Typographers and printers set up shop along the frozen causeway, the newly named ‘City Road’. A man ate hot coals. There was a bear-garden. The Tories erected a pampleteering booth. Tradesmen set up every imaginable kind of business. And the women, slipping and sliding across the brown-stained ice in their muffs and silken winter finery, came for the shopping. At the end of March, the resulting thaw scoured the Thames of its boats and barges, as the jagged frozen blocks smashed their way toward the estuary with the ebbing of the tide.

To see such a scene, check out the film version of ‘Orlando’.

4 comments on “A London Frost Fair”

  1. Cat Eldridge says:

    By any chance, did you a beer garden where you wrote bear garden? Though I suppose if Uncle Walter can go waltzing with bears, anything is possible…

  2. Helen Martin says:

    A bear garden would have been more likely – an area where they baited bears. There were pubs on the ice but I don’t think they called them beer gardens, just pubs. There’s a book called The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphrey which describes/quotes things that happened during all the recorded times the river froze. It’s not a thick book but it’s fun reading and there are lots of period illustrations.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Yes, it would have been a bear garden, Helen. There is a good mystery novel set in Restoration London (Xmas 1669) by Edward Marston, called The Frost Fair. It has nice descriptions of the frozen Thames. There is a fine old painting on the cover: Frost Fair on the Thames (1683-84)done by A D. Hondius and in the Bridgeman Art Library. Shows the hundreds of people on the ice with their carrages, sleds, dogs, horses,etc. I tried to spot Arthur in the crowd as a lad, but didn’t see him. Perhaps, it was before his time. Kidding.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I think that is the picture they put on the cover of Humphrey’s book. (She did a lovely book about Land Girls and their life in 1941. The book is The Lost Garden and is set in an abandoned estate in Devon. Not guessing at which garden she had in mind.)

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