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Frost Fair of 1814

Cold enough for you? That’s a somewhat obnoxious question people like to ask when your teeth are chattering and your fingers and toes ache from freezing temperatures.  

Where I live in Portland, Oregon, we are really feeling the cold right now with the mercury in the thermometer sinking down into the single digits. That is rare for this city, which usually enjoys a temperate climate moderated by the Pacific Ocean.

As a result of the frigid temps I've been spending a lot of time keeping my bird feeder filled with seeds and the sugar water in my hummingbird feeder thawed. Yesterday morning I barely got the hummingbird feeder on its hook (after keeping it overnight in the house so it wouldn't freeze) when a hummingbird forgot its shyness and buzz-bombed me, eager for a sweet liquid fix.

Photo of a Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
This was  a featured photo on the English Wikipedia in November, 2013.
It's also what I saw inches from my face yesterday.
(Wikimedia Commons)

However cold it is here, though, it is nothing compared with one winter during the Regency. During the winter of 1814, London got so cold that the River Thames actually froze solid for days between London Bridge and Blackfriars. And when that happened, Londoners did what they had done for centuries before: they put on a Frost Fair.  

People celebrated the cold, erecting booths and tents on the frozen stretch of the river. What followed was a regular fair, with food, games and entertainment. Someone even led an elephant onto the ice. After four days of revelry the fair shut down when the ice began to crack.

Frost Fair of 1814, painted by Luke Clenell
(Wikimedia Commons)

This wasn't the first time the Thames froze over and a fair was held. The river used to be shallower and its current flowed more slowly. As far back as 250 AD the river reportedly froze for nine weeks.

And England used to be colder, too. From the 15th to the early 19th century the river froze regularly, during what’s been called Britain’s Little Ice Age. Frost Fairs were held frequently during the bone-chilling winters of those centuries, and there are many accounts of people traveling on the river by coach or sleigh to get across London more easily.

A notable Frost Fair was held during the winter of 1683-1684, when the River Thames was iced over for two months. The cold that year was so severe that ice stretched for miles in the North Sea off the coasts of England, France and Belgium. The ground was frozen in Manchester to a depth of 27 inches; in Somerset the depth was four feet.

And so the Great Frost Fair of 1683-1684 was organized. Attractions included coach and horse racing, bull-baiting, puppet shows and skeet shooting. There were coffee houses, beer gardens, roast beef vendors, toy shops, music and much, much more. You could also find “tipling houses” at the fair if you wanted to drink stronger spirits along with "other lewd places” to visit, according to English writer and diarist John Evelyn, who witnessed the fair.

I guess people got a little carried away during the fair; Evelyn described it as a “bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water” (make that frozen water).

Detail from a painting of the 1683-1684 Frost Fair,
 from a 2007 FT magazine article by Thomas Wyke
(Wikimedia Commons) 

Of course, when the river froze it wasn't all fun and games. Shipping was halted, affecting the city’s commerce. Fish, birds and deer died in the extreme cold, and the poor had difficulty finding enough fuel to keep warm. When the thaw did come, it could be dangerous, too, especially if it was too rapid. Five people were crushed to death in January, 1789, when melting ice on the Thames dragged a ship and the riverside pub building it was tied to into the river.

Though the revelers who attended the fair couldn't have known it at the time, the Frost Fair of 1814 was the last Frost Fair on the River Thames. Both the climate and the river changed after that event, and the Thames has never frozen quite so solid since.

Winter temperatures in London are milder now than they were two centuries ago, and embankments have been added to the river, making it deeper along the shores and less likely to freeze. Also, the old London Bridge was torn down in 1831 and replaced with a bridge that has wider arches. The new bridge design allows the tides that flow under the bridge to move more freely, and that, too, inhibits freezing.

So, if you are living in a cold climate you may want to remember London’s great Frost Fairs when your bird bath freezes over. If I could figure out a way to set up tiny booths on the ice for the birds and squirrels, this miserable weather would be a lot more fun! 

My bird bath -  now it's more of a bird ice-skating rink!


  1. Oh, I wish you could, Maureen! The birds and squirrels would be thrilled, as would I! :-D Another fun and interesting post--thank you for sharing your knowledge and talent with us! xo Jennifer

  2. Maureen, Now I feel guilty for not even thinking of the birds and squirrels! I've been so worried about keeping myself warm that I didn't even give them a thought.

    - Momma Cat


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