A brief history of the Thames Frost Fairs

The River Thames frost fairs were held on the tideway of the River Thames in London, England from at least 7th century onwards. It continued until 18th century quite regularly. The period of the Little Ice Age was a time when the river froze over most often and that’s when festivals and fairs were held on the ice. During that time the British winter was more severe than it is now, and the river was wider and slower, further impeded by the 19 piers of the medieval Old London Bridge which were removed in 1831.

There have been 24 winters in the past 300 years in which the Thames has frozen over.The Thames freezes over more often upstream, beyond the reach of the tide, especially above the weirs, of which Teddington Lock is the lowest. The last great freeze of the higher Thames was in 1962–63.

Before the technical advancements of the 19th century, bridges would obstruct the natural flow of rivers, causing the water to become so still that it would frequently freeze during the winter. On the Thames, a prolonged period of cold weather was required because the icing-over process took time; ice patches formed near the banks and bridges, gradually extending and joining up until a continuous sheet of ice covered the river. After then, things that were referred to as fairs took place, but in reality, they were only unplanned celebrations, for a real fair required a Royal Charter. In the years 1564–1565, it was documented that archery and dance took place on the Thames.

The years 1683–1684 were very cold with ice between the beginning of December and the 4th of February. On the ice, a whole ox was grilled, and there was a roadway filled with stalls that stretched all the way from the Temple to Southark. Charles II, together with members of his family and household, travelled to the frozen river to take in the sights and take part in the activities available there. Hand printing machines had been put up on the ice in order to present individuals with a permanent souvenir of the Frost Fair.

Further great frosts occurred in 1715–16 and in 1739–40 and later that century part of the river were a never ending fair in winter

During the winter of 1813–14, the largest frost fair of the century took place. Thousands of people paid 2d or 3d entry tolls to the watermen who made sure that no one had access to the Thames without their assistance by excavating channels in the ice by the banks of the river and then assisting people over them. Shortly after the old London Bridge was demolished and therefore was the end of a river.

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