London Metropolitan Archives – Frozen London: Frost Fairs on the Thames

Even after a brief snowfall it doesn’t take long to spot the excitement it brings; kids running around grabbing sleds and heading for any kind of slope they can find, adults posing with a snowball on their head, endless pictures of people’s back gardens on Facebook and snowmen popping up in the most unexpected places.

The Frost Fair

The Frost Fair, 1814

So now imagine those days gone by when London knew what winter was really all about, not just the good old days your grandad remembers, but the 17th, 18th or 19th Centuries when the Thames would freeze over for weeks on end. From the images and documents on display at the London Metropolitan Archives’ Frozen London exhibition it looks like they got even more excited about it than we do today.

Vast numbers of stalls were set up on the river with signs advertising “A sheep to be roasted”, “Wellington for Ever – Good Ale” as well as F“Slyding in skeats” and “music booths”. But it’s the queues for the printing presses that are most notable – you can see them stretching through the middle of the image above. At considerable risk large presses were dragged onto the Thames to take advantage of the crowd’s appetite for a genuine souvenir printed on the ice, with many of these printed ‘tickets’ on display in the exhibition.

For many, such as watermen, their daily lives were completely disrupted as they couldn’t carry on their day jobs and so the ice fairs were a great use of their newly attained free time. Others saw it as an opportunity for trade or less legitimate activities in an unregulated part of the city. And it also attracted the wealthier, lured by the novelty of playing on the ice.

But it clearly wasn’t all fun and games as these harsh winters took their toll on people’s health, particularly the poor, it disrupted trade and sent the cost of coal, food and other necessities sky high. The case book from the Royal Humane Society is on display showing some of the details of incidents that happened on the ice and there are other stories of where the ice has broken and people have drowned.

I can only imagine what the scenes would be like today in the same circumstances, but since the Embankment was built causing the river to narrow and the water to flow faster we’re unlikely to see this. But I’m picturing a stage with bands taking it in turns to risk their moment in the spotlight, ice skating and mulled cider – perhaps not too different from in earlier times, except for where the ice starts cracking under the sheer weight of health and safety signs.

The exhibition is open until 25 April 2013 at London Metropolitan Archives, London.


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