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Friday Follies: Frost Fairs and Alligators on Ice

A 17th century Frost Fair on the River Thames,
by Thomas Wyke (1683-84)

It’s February, and so far this year there've been record cold temperatures in many places across North America. That puts me in mind of the last Great Freeze in London, which took place during the first week of February in 1814.

It got so cold that year that the river Thames froze completely solid between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Signs were posted around town to let citizens know it was safe to walk on the frozen river, and an impromptu "Freezeland Street" was established on the ice. Vendors of almost every type set up booths on this street, creating a grand Frost Fair. 

Butchers, bakers, booksellers and barbers offered their wares and services. You could also find skittle alleys, toyshops, and places to gamble and buy beer, gin, brandy-balls and even gingerbread. Hawkers worked their way through the crowds, selling pies, oysters, fruit and even ballads. Oddly enough, along with the booths, shops and games, some printing presses were set up on the ice - though what the printers actually printed isn't known.

This wasn't the first Frost Fair on the River Thames. During the period between 1309 and 1814, the river froze almost two dozen times and five of those times the ice was thick enough to support a fair. 

But surely the 1814 fair was the largest - and the last. It was both a carnival and a marketplace, and a good reason to defy the cold and have a party. It must have been a ton of fun. 

And speaking of tons, the river was so frozen that in addition to all the people and temporary structures that were erected on the ice, someone actually walked an elephant across the solid river, near Blackfriars Bridge.

Now that’s frozen. And the Thames has never frozen that hard since.

Here is a collection of contemporary images and more information about Frost Fairs on the River Thames:

The idea of an elephant on the ice – I can only imagine how miserable that animal must have felt in the unaccustomed cold – got me thinking about how other animals unused to severe winter conditions handle an unexpected freeze. And no sooner than I thought of it, I ran across this recent news video clip of alligators in the southern states of the U.S.

You don’t usually think of alligators and ice together. Yet these enterprising and frankly scary animals know how to survive in a frozen river. Turns out those long snouts of theirs have many uses!

And if you're trying to deal with very cold conditions, I hope you're surviving well, too - and maybe even having fun like those Londoners did long ago during the Regency. 

 Other sources for this post include:


  1. People are very enterprising, aren't they? They see a great open space, in this case a frozen river, and they just have to get out on it! Wherever there are people, there's food, drink, and entertainment, right? They were pretty smart to take advantage of that frozen river!

    1. You're right - those Londoners were very enterprising, and knew how to make the most of a tricky situation. I think a frost fair could be a lot of fun, as long as the ice doesn't start to melt!


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