The Great Frost Fair of 1683-4

For nearly 400 years, London's citizens poured down from the streets to hold a frost fair upon the solid ice of the Thames.

Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the distance, unknown artist, c. 1684. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Public Domain.

On August 1st, 1831, in the presence of William IV and Queen Adelaide, the new London Bridge was formally opened; nearby, ready for demolition after centuries of use, stood the old Bridge with its twenty narrow arches. The main purpose in the design of the new Bridge, with its five spacious arches, was to give a freer passage to shipping, but it also had the effect of altering the flow of the Thames, which acquired a greater scour, and of changing a small but important aspect of London’s social life.

The Thames, because it now ran faster beneath the new arches, no longer froze over to anything like the same extent as it had done in the past, and without an expanse of ice, solid enough to bear the weight of thousands of people, booths and stalls, coaches and sledges, the traditional Thames Frost Fairs, that had been a feature of London life for almost four hundred years, could no longer be held.

In all, nine such Fairs are known to have been held on the frozen Thames. The first of them took place in the winter of 1564-5 when, according to Holinshead, “people went over and alongst the Thames on the ise, from London Bridge to Westminster, shot dailie at prickes set upon the Thames, and the people both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in anie street of the Citie of London.”

But it was not until the winter of 1608-9 that we hear of booths and stalls being set up on the ice. Because of the great concourse of people that flocked on to the Thames, so Edmund Howe relates in his Continuation of the Abridgement of Stowe's English Chronicle, there “were many that set up boothes & standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoemakers’ and a barber’s tent.” With this innovation, the Frost Fair took on its final character of fair and market combined, which it was to keep unchanged until the last of its kind in 1813-14.

The Thames froze hard enough again to hold a Fair on it in 1634-5. And then, during a frost of unparalleled severity in the winter of 1683-4, the great Frost Fair or Blanket Fair was held. It was this Fair, described by John Evelyn in his Diary, that set the pattern for the five that followed it in the winters of 1688, 1715, 1739, 1789, and 1813; as such, and because it is relatively so well documented, the Frost Fair of 1683-4 may be taken as representative of all its successors.

In the autumn of 1683, on or about November 16th, the wind veered to the north-west, and ushered in a mild frost that continued by “small thaws” until either December 15th or 19th when the “real frost” began. For the next two weeks, the Thames slowly froze over. Ice formed near the banks and “some thousands of people” made a beaten track from London Bridge to Whitehall. The middle of the river was as yet free, although “flakes” or blocks of ice were beginning to accumulate against the starlings of London Bridge, and gradually block the narrow arches beneath it.

This ice was a considerable hazard to boats attempting a crossing, and on one occasion, at least, a wherry filled with passengers was struck and sunk by ice-blocks. Toward the end of December, the first booths and stalls were erected by “poor watermen” on the ice near the banks, and were already attracting large crowds. By January 5th, the Thames was a solid sheet of ice, and by way of testing its strength a coach and six horses was driven across it for a wager. The ice passed the test. Next day, the width of ice between the two banks was quickly commandeered and rows of booths and stalls sprang up at great speed. The great Frost Fair had begun.

By January 15th, multitudes of people were packing the booths and moving in jostling procession down the narrow streets that the booths had formed, particularly down the one that stretched from the Temple to the Barge House at Southwark. Then occurred what all the tradesmen at the Fair must have been daily dreading: a thaw. As quickly as they had gone up, all the booths and stalls were tom down, and the coaches that had been plying on the temporary highway of the Thames returned to the streets of the City.

The thaw, however, lasted for only three days. On the 19th, the wind returned to its “Cold Corner” and the Thames was once again fettered in ice, except for a few pockets of water that were the cause of several deaths. Now the frost had become so severe that some people prophesied it would last until March, and on the strength of this one man wagered that he could build a house on the ice two or three stories high, lie one night in it, and pull it down again before the frost ended.

Shortly after the 19th, Charles II, who had a commanding view of the Thames from his Palace at Whitehall, ordered a “landskip” or panoramic picture of the Fair to be made so that its memory should not be lost. Three days later on the 23rd, the King ordered a collection to be made for the poor of London who were suffering great hardship because of the scarcity and expense of food and fuel. Luttrell records that “he (Charles II) gave himself 20001 (as is said) for an example, and large contributions were made by divers persons.” On the same day, a bull was baited on the Thames. On the 24th, John Evelyn paid a visit to the Fair and set down his impressions:

“The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London, was still planted with boothes in formal streetes, all sorts of shops and trades furnish’d and full of commodities even to a printing-presse... Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet-playes, and interludes, cookes, tipling, and other lewd places, so that it seem’d to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.”

Influenced by the example of the King, no doubt, the Company of Watermen, on January 26th, distributed £200 among “poor watermen and widows.” On the same day, large crowds were being entertained by the spectacle of Captain Edwards of the Trained Bands as he “exercised his Company on the Ice of the Thames, and conducted them thereon from the Three Crowns to the Temple Stairs.”

A letter dated January 31st, from one of the newsmen employed by Sir Richard Newdegate to keep him informed of events in London while he was away, gave details of the various means of transport then available on the Thames. Altogether, there were about forty coaches operating daily as far as Lambeth and Vauxhall. In addition, there were sledges drawn by horses, and a “kind of Sledge Chair which people, which skate, drive before them at a great Rate.” On February 2nd, a whole ox was roasted on the river near Whitehall.

At about the same time the watermen, who had suffered great hardship ever since the Frost had deprived them of their natural means of livelihood, presented a petition of complaint to the Court of Aldermen asking that their right to build booths on the Thames, and to carry Gentlemen on the ice in their converted boats, be protected against “divers others who have no relation to the river.” The watermen followed this up on February 5th with another petition against the plying of coaches on the Thames, but by this time the thaw had set in and so the matter was dropped. The thaw had begun on the previous night and in six hours the Fair had vanished.

There was a slight freeze from the 7th to the 9th, but the ice had sunk so much that at high tide it was covered with water. By February 12th the “Thames was open and divers persons went upon it in boats from Westminster, all the ice being gone.” Thus ended the great Frost and Frost Fair of 1683-4. So much for its chronology. Let us now have a closer look at the pleasures and entertainments offered to the Londoner during the six weeks that the Fair lasted.

First, there was a great variety of foods on sale, and a wide choice of drinks with which to wash them down. There were:

“Hot codlins, pancakes, duck, goose and sack,

Rabit, capon, turkey and wooden jack.”

At somewhat inflated prices, a visitor could buy a slice of roast beef, or plum-cake, and follow it with a tankard of either beer, ale, brandy, or French or Spanish wine. If he happened to have a puritanical objection to strong drink, he could try “a dish of famous new-made coffee,” or tea or chocolate. Among the few delicacies lacking at the Fair, because they were scarce, were green peas and cherries.

The amusements offered were no less varied. The visitor could take part in a game of ninepins—recently “imported” into this country as ten-pins—or of pidgeon holes. If he was feeling energetic, he could clap on “skeetes” and skim across the ice and perhaps terrorize unwary squires in this fashion:

“Straight comes on arch-way, a young son of a whore,

And lays the squire’s head where his heels were before.”

Or else he could watch and admire the gyrations of the Rotterdam Dutchman who daily entertained the crowds with trick ice-skating. The Dutch were responsible for another form of entertainment, the Dutch whimsies. These Whimsies, which were probably the originals of the modem fair-ground round-abouts, appear to have been very popular:

“There were the Dutch whimsies swiftly turning round,

By which the owners cleared many a pound.”

In addition, the visitor was regaled by puppet-plays, interludes, bull- and bear-baiting (watched by children from trees on the bank near the Temple), horse and coach races, dancing on ropes, sword-swallowing, treading on hot coals, and even fox-hunting. This last spectacle, which tradition says Charles II saw, is illustrated on one of the contemporary ballad-sheets, where the fox is shown being run on a leash across the ice pursued by large dogs also on leashes.

At a given signal, when all the bets had been laid, fox and dogs were loosed and the chase began. There was also another curious and somewhat anachronistic spectacle that must have caused endless wonder: a chariot that moved on its own without any visible agency—the power, in fact, came from a coiled spring. For apprentices and students there was the blood-warming and often violent game of football:

“And football playing there was day by day

Some broke their legs, and some their arms, they say;

All striving to get credit, but some paid

Most dearly for it, I am half afraid.”

Like the Hampstead Fair at Easter today, with its narrow lane of booths stretching across the Heath, the Frost Fair of 1683-4 was centred on two lines of booths forming a narrow lane that stretched from the Temple to Southwark, appropriately called “Freezeland-street.” It was here that the throngs of Londoners mainly gathered, moving slowly up and down in a dense mass, viewing and tasting the wares offered at the various booths.

It is reasonable to assume that a large number of the booths were devoted to the sale of strong liquor, booths such as the Flying Piss-Pot, the Whip and the EggShell. Some of them not only supplied drink to customers, but could if desired provide them with women. One booth, the Phoenix, was “insured as long as the Foundation stands.”

The booths themselves were “Sail-Cloath Mansions, Tent-wise fram’d,” that is, were made up from the sails, masts and oars of the watermen’s boats, square in shape and heated inside by glowing charcoal fires. Over these were turned spits of roasting meat. Kegs of beer, ale and mum, a potent brew imported from Brunswick, were laid out ready on trestles. The topers were indeed well served. But not all the booths offered drink. There was a Music Booth, where fiddlers made music for dancing, a Lottery Booth, a Toy Booth, and booths where clothes were on sale, and vessels made in silver, copper, wood, brass, gold, pewter, tin and glass, all with their prices marked up.

What cost 3d. ashore cost 4d. on the ice, a ballad reports. It was also possible to pick up amazingly cheap bargains, or so they seemed. For instance, one peddler was offering diamond rings at the Fair for next to nothing:

“Here you may buy a diamond ring for nought,

Such as from India ne’er was bought,

(The cuts were diamond, the substance ice,

Which in men’s pockets vanished in a trice.)

But for his cheat the man will pay full dear

Condemned by my lord to whipping chear.”

But the great novelty of the Fair was the printing presses. There were some three or four of these on the ice, and apart from printing and selling ballad-sheets, they also printed the names of visitors to the Fair on cards as a memorial of their visit. The idea was new, but it immediately caught on, and became a regular feature of the Frost Fairs down to 1814. An idea of how popular it was is given by John Evelyn:

“This humour (of having one’s name printed) tooke so universally, that ’twas estimated the printer gain’d £5 a day, for printing a line onely, at sixpence a name, besides what he got bv ballads, etc.”

There exists in the British Museum such a memorial card on which are printed the names of Charles II and other members of the royal family. The date on the card is January 31st, and it was presumably on this day that Charles visited the Fair and among other things “joined in a fox-hunt on the river.”

With such a variety of entertainment and such a feast of food and drink, all offered on the glittering frozen river, to the sound of fiddles, roaring bulls, shouting tradesmen, singing drunkards, creaking coaches and the continuous clamour of the thick crowd, it is easy to see why Evelyn described the Fair as “a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.” And such it probably was for those able to pay the stiff prices demanded on the ice. There was, however, another side to this gay occasion that crops up briefly but persistently in the ballads and documents of the time. In the words of one rhymester:

“Yet was it hard and grievous to the poor,

Who many hungry bellies did endure.”

Luttrell, writing on January 30th, after mentioning the sports of the Fair, in the same breath relates “how miserable were the wants of poore people, Deare universally perished in most of the parks thro-out England, & very much Cattell.” With the freezing of the waters round the coasts, coal had to be conveyed in sledges, and its price consequently soared. Food, though abundant at the Fair, was nevertheless very expensive. The chief sufferers were the old people. An entry in the Parochial Register of Ubley, in Somerset, at this time, simply and eloquently portrays the harsh severity of the Frost and can speak for the rest of the country:

“Som that was travelling on mindipe did travell till they could travell no longer, and then lye down and dye, but mortality did prevail most among them that could travell worst, the sharpe-ness of the season tooke off the moste parte of them that was aged and of them that was under infirmities, the people did die so fast that it was the greatest parte of their work (which was appointed to doe that worke) to burie the dead; it being a daye’s work for two men.”

The same conditions prevailed in London and the same difficulty in digging graves is mentioned; a newsletter to Sir Richard Newdegate states that chisels had to be used to break the ground, and such was the shortage of graves that, according to rumour, corpses were being stored in charnel-houses.

It was to relieve the hardship and suffering caused by the Frost that Charles II, as we have seen, launched a relief fund and the Company of Watermen followed his example by making a distribution among their more needy members and among widows. It was inevitable that the watermen in particular should have been hard hit by the Frost, since one of its principal effects was to deprive them of their natural trading highway, the liquid Thames.

At this period there would have been some 20,000 watermen—an estimate based on the yearly intake of apprentices—earning a living on the Thames, and it is probable that a high proportion of this number were unemployed by January 8th when the Thames froze over completely. Some, but their numbers could not have been high, managed to adapt themselves to the new circumstances.

As mentioned earlier, “several poor watermen” erected booths and stalls on the ice when the Thames was frozen only at the edges. By January 19th, when the Fair was completely built, an additional number of watermen must have found a living from renting out the booths and stalls that they had the right to build on the ice. It was when this right was abused, and tradesmen from the town attempted to build their own booths, that the watermen addressed their petition of complaint to the Court of Aldermen.

The watermen complained that “there onely subsistence now being during the Extremity of the Season, Some of them to set up Boothes upon the River to sell drinke, and others to attend on & conduct Gentlemen in their first coming upon the Ice, Divers others who have no relation to the river interfere with them and deprive them of this meanes of their support.” The petition was successful and Mr. Water Bailiff was ordered to safeguard their rights. It is clear that the watermen not only owned and traded in most of the booths, but also continued to carry passengers on the river.

As contemporary prints show, they were able to do this by fitting sledges to the keels of their boats which were then drawn by either men or horses. Those who did not convert their boats were forced by the Frost to other “hard shifts” in order to make a living. Some became water-bearers or link-boys. Others carried corn or coal on their backs.

The “Divers others” mentioned in the petition as threatening the watermen’s livelihood included not only tradesmen who erected their own booths, but also the hackney coach drivers. By January 23rd, these were plying regularly on the Thames between Westminster and the Temple, as well as farther up river, and must have been stealing a lot of trade from those watermen who had managed to convert their boats to use on the ice. Instinctively, they recognized the hackney coach as a dangerous rival and detested it accordingly.

Some fifty years before, when the hackney coach was still a novelty, the competition it offered provoked John Taylor, the water-poet, to describe it as “a strange monster... a great crab-shell brought out of China” that threatened to put the cobbler out of business. The cobbler survived this threat, but the watermen did not. Today there are left on the Thames only some two hundred and fifty watermen, and the coach’s descendant, the cab, reigns supreme.

But in the winter of 1683-4 the struggle between the two forms of transport was only in its early stages, with the river boat on this occasion winning a temporary victory over its rival. The watermen seem to have established a right of first refusal in the carrying of “Gentlemen in their first coming upon the Ice.”

Despite this privilege, the competition was stiff, and many Gentlemen preferred the speedier coach to the converted boats. There is a note of bitterness, as well as profound relief, in this stanza from a ballad entitled “The Thames Uncas’d, or The Waterman’s Song upon the Thaw,” which suggests that the coachmen had done excellent trade at the expense of the watermen:

“Nor shall the hackney coach

Where whores do debauch

Upon our Thames now run.

Nor shall they bawl,

To Westminster Hall

Will your gowned worship go?

We wept in despite

While the rogues went tight

But the frost is over now.”

In fact, so severe did the competition from the coaches become that the watermen presented another petition to the Court of Aldermen asking that the plying of coaches should be forbidden altogether on the river, but the day that the petition was presented, February 5th, the thaw had set in and so for the time being the controversy ended.

Such then was the Frost Fair of 1683-4, an ill-assorted mixture of gaiety and hardship, six weeks of continuous carnival in a period of near starvation and extreme cold for the poor of London. Today such hardship and suffering have been banished; so, too, has the gaiety of Frost Fairs.