Exactly 200 years ago today, on February 5, 1814, something wondrous, fascinating and fun happened for the very last time on planet Earth. On that day the Frost Fair on the river Thames in London closed down, due to the ice beginning to break up. The festival had been going on for four days and many children and adults had experienced a small and welcome reprieve from the depressing winter and the chores of their daily lives. They didn’t know it at the time, but the great Frost Fair of 1814 was the last, ending a tradition that had begun almost 300 years earlier.
A frost fair was an age-old tradition in England. When the river Thames would freeze solid, which didn’t happen very often, people would go out on the ice for skating and winter sports, and also establish food booths and a little open-air carnival. There were attractions for kids such as clowns and games, grog stands and drinking-related activities for adults, and displays of animals and exotic wares. When the ice would begin to break up, the merchants and hawkers would move back to shore and the fair would be over.
The beginnings of these festivals stretch back to the Middle Ages, but the first real Frost Fairs occurred in Elizabethan times. Probably the most famous Frost Fair was that of 1683. There were displays of bull-baiting, acrobats and games of football. The Frost Fairs cut across the strata of society; King Charles II was seen at the one in 1683. In addition to being occasions for fun and commerce, Frost Fairs served a social need by getting everyone out of their houses in the middle of winter, and also supplying the opportunity for exercise and social mingling.
The Frost Fair of 1683-84 evidently lasted several weeks. One observer described it as a “Bacchanalian triumph.”
The Frost Fair of 1814 came after a terrible cold snap and series of punishing snowstorms brutalized the British Isles beginning in late December. In Ireland there were snowdrifts recorded 20 feet high, and many fatalities, especially among the poor, resulted from the cold temperatures and bad weather. In fact 1814 came in the middle of a decade of climate change occasioned by volcanic eruptions in 1809 and 1812–a phenomenon closely related to the “Year Without Summer” that occurred two years later, in 1816. It was abnormally cold and the chill was relentless. The Frost Fair that began on the first of February was a welcome release from the grim business of surviving and keeping warm, two often difficult tasks in Georgian England.
The miniature climate change of the 1810s (the Cold Decade) is the subject of my academic research. As such, not long ago I happened upon a book in an archive called Frostiana, which was a souvenir booklet from the 1814 Frost Fair. The publishers actually hauled a printing press onto the ice and printed a portion of the book right there on the Thames. The book contained not only an account of the cold spell and storms of 1813-14 and the Frost Fair itself, but also anecdotes related to cold weather, winter sports and even recipes for ice cream and other treats. This odd little book is one of the most fascinating historical sources I’ve ever come across. Here is its description of part of the Frost Fair:
Among the more curious of [the entertainment at the Fair] was the ceremony of roasting a small sheep, which was toasted, or rather burnt, over a coal fire, placed in a large iron pan. For a view of this extraordinary spectacle, sixpence was demanded, and willingly paid. The delicate meat when done, was sold at a shilling a slice, and termed Lapland mutton.
Alas, the 1814 Frost Fair was the very last, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. While the climate did warm back up again after 1819, in 1830 London Bridge was renovated and substantially changed, which had the effect of changing the flow of the Thames. After the changes to the bridge the water ran under its arches in a much more concentrated fashion, making it much harder for the Thames to freeze. Certainly by the time anthropogenic climate change (greenhouse gas warming) began in the 20th century there was virtually no chance the Thames could ever again freeze solid enough to have a Frost Fair. This very unique form of winter entertainment is thus gone forever, a permanent casualty of largely man-made tinkering with the environment.