The year the River Thames froze over
How the great freeze of 1607–8 initiated a long standing tradition of Frost Fairs on the River Thames
A few days before Christmas in the year 1607 the Thames froze hard. This had happened before, and older Londoners could remember skidding their way across the ice as they crossed from the city directly to Bankside, pleased to avoid the walk east to London Bridge. In the past, the late queen Elizabeth had even taken to the frozen river on her sled.
One cold year was 1599, when Shakespeare’s theatre company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men dismantled their old playhouse in Shoreditch, moved the wooden frame over the Thames, and rebuilt it as the Globe in Southwark. The story goes that the actors hauled the timbers across the icy river in the dead of night. But although the Thames was ‘nigh frozen over’, the ice was thin: no-one ventured onto the river that year.
The great freeze of 1607-8, by contrast, was colder and longer than anything anyone had experienced, and it initiated what would become an occasional winter institution in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London: the frost fair. Entrepreneurial tradespeople set up stalls to cater to the crowds who thronged the ‘conglutinated frozen stream’, as the poet John Taylor described the wintry river. Londoners could buy drinks and snacks, and even slices of freshly roasted pork, cooked over coal fires kindled in the middle of the ice.
Average temperatures were lower in the early modern period, and the narrow piers of old London Bridge slowed the current of the river and made it more liable to freezing. Every decade or so, a harsh winter would turn the ‘Thames’s streams to hard congealed flakes, / And pearled water drops to crystal cakes’ (John Taylor again), and the bustling city would expand onto the waterway.
In 1621, which is the year represented in our diorama (built in 1912 by Thorp Model Makers), the fair included bakery stalls, ball games and gambling tents. Pedestrians – five hundred of whom milled about at any one time – had to compete with dozens of horse-drawn coaches and caroches which crunched over the ice.
The most extravagant fair in the seventeenth century was that of 1683-4. Traders of all sorts set up shops, publishers established presses to print special frost fair souvenir cards, and entertainers offered bull and bear baiting, puppet-plays and all manner of lewd ‘tippling’. It was, said the diarist John Evelyn, ‘a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water’.
Not everyone was happy. The watermen – scullers who operated the small boats (wherries) that ferried people over the river – faced a collapse of their business. In 1621, the freeze lasted for eight weeks, and the wherries languished in their iced-over berths. Out-of-work watermen stood guard at the water-stairs, and demanded money from Londoners who wished to step onto the ice – terrain which the watermen still regarded as their property.
Many people found the severe cold difficult. Fuel was expensive and in short supply, and such coal as was burnt produced a thick smog that blanketed the frozen city. Brewers, bakers and washerwomen struggled without a source of running water. Amid this hardship, the excitement of a frost fair was a welcome distraction for the chilly city.