Here in Calgary, Canada, we’ve been pretty lucky this winter. Though we had some snow and cold in November and early December, since then it’s been largely mild temperatures and very little snow. That’s certainly welcome if you hate shoveling the white stuff off your driveway! Unfortunately, winter has caught up with us, leading to temperatures below minus thirty degrees. (For all you backward Americans, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet at minus forty, which should give you an idea of how nasty it has become!) While I have hope for better days ahead, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to talk about frost fairs on the Thames River.
Frost Fairs are common in certain areas of the world, as they are held when rivers freeze over, the most famous examples being near great cities. London, given its proximity to the coast, does not often experience weather cold enough to freeze the river enough to allow traffic on its surface. A quick look at Wikipedia says that the average temperature in London during the winter is above freezing. Thus, a frost fair would only be possible during particularly cold winters.
Frost fairs were opportunities for fun and activities, and also for commerce for the city’s men of business. Many activities could be found during a frost fair. Sleds could be seen traversing the ice, some private and others for hire, while all manner of vendors would set up their shops, offering everything from hot food and drinks to souvenirs, including commemorative cards depicting the festival scene, often with the customer’s name, the date, and other information printed on it. In addition, one could see puppet shows, play games, race coaches, and all manner of other revelries. It was said the sellers of cards could make many times their normal weekly salaries every day a frost fair continued.
As previously mentioned, London has not historically experienced many occasions in which it became cold for long enough periods to provoke a freezing of the Thames near the coast. The first frost fair was first recorded as being in 1608, occurring approximately a score of times over the next two centuries. The worst frost and longest fair was the winter of 1683-84 when the Thames froze over before Christmas and did not thaw until more than two months later. During this frigid winter, ice was reported off the coast of England in many places, making it hazardous for shipping and closing certain ports altogether. On the Thames itself, the thickness of the ice reached a thickness of almost a foot. On the other hand, frost fairs were often short, lasting only a few days. A sudden change in the weather could bring about a sudden thaw, which would send people scurrying for the safety of land. There are even a few accounts of life and property being lost when the weather suddenly changed.
The last frost fair happened in the year 1814 and lasted for only four days. During this festival, an elephant was led out onto the ice to perform tricks for revelers. About fifteen years later the old London Bridge was demolished, and its replacement was larger with wider arches, allowing the tide to flow through it more freely. This, combined with generally milder winters made the freezing of the Thames less likely, bringing to a close this fun piece of London history.
The year 1814 is interesting to Austen fans, as it is less than three years after the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. With only a small change in circumstances or a slight change in timing, a story featuring Elizabeth and Darcy on the ice would be possible. Does anyone wish to take up the challenge?