Monday, 7 January 2013

The Wintery Wonders of the Frost Fairs

                 The climate change deniers can stick their fingers in their ears and go la-la-la all they wish but the climate of our planet is changing and it is partly our fault. The climate alters over time and overall temperatures fluctuate due to a number of factors that are beyond our control but we certainly aren’t helping matters, although that’s a subject for another time and place. One effect of temperature changes is a cycle of ice ages and this includes the Little Ice Ages that happen during the greater pattern. Opinions differ as to when the last Little Ice Age began and ended but it affected northern Europe during the later Middle Ages and well into the modern period. 

Trouble on the Thames

One consequence was that rivers and canals were frozen on a regular basis, leading people to hold Frost Fairs on the ice, the most famous being those on the river Thames at London. The earliest record we have of the Thames freezing over is from 134 CE, when it froze for two months, in 153 many English rivers, including the Thames, froze over, and again in 173, when the frost lasted for three months. In 220, there was a continuous frost that lasted for five months, and in 250 the Thames was frozen for nine weeks. Further severe winters followed on a regular basis – a frost began on November 1st 1076 and lasted until April 15th 1077 
In the tenth year of his [William the Conqueror] reign, the cold of winter was exceeding memorable, both for sharpness and for continuance; for the earth remained hard from the beginning of November until the midst of April then ensuing.” 
A chronicle of 1092 notes,  
“… the great streams [of England] were congealed in such a manner that they could draw two hundred horsemen and carriages over them; whilst at their thawing, many bridges, both of wood and stone, were borne down, and divers water-mills were broken up and carried away." 

A Frost Fair

There were more great frosts that followed, in 1564-65 Holinshed notes in his Chronicles
People went over and alongst the Thames on the ise, from London Bridge to Westminster. Some plaied at the football as boldlie there, as if it had been on the drie land ; divers of the court being then at 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.” 
The Thames froze solid again in 1608, when the first Frost Fair was held on the ice when, in addition to playing sports on the river, booths were erected and stallholders sold ale, wine and food, together with fruit-sellers, shoemakers and even a barber. 

The Frost Fair on the Thames 1683-84

Another Fair followed in 1684, and was described by John Evelyn in his Diary, 
Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.” 
Evelyn also notes that an enterprising printer named Croom set up his press on the ice and sold souvenir tickets printed with the buyer’s name at sixpence a time, earning him in excess of £5 per day, in addition to his regular income from printed ballads and broadsheets describing the daily trials and executions at Newgate Gaol. 

One of Croom's souvenir tickets

King Charles II and his royal party visited the Frost Fair and had a souvenir ticket printed on Dutch paper, measuring three and a half inches by four inches, listing their names and concluding with the interesting line ‘Hans in Kelder’, which is Dutch for ‘Jack in the Cellar’, indicating that Princess Anne was pregnant at the time (she delivered a stillborn daughter on May 12th 1684); the phrase was used proverbially at the time to describe pregnancy and did not hint at the sex of the child. 

King Charles II - Croom ticket

In spite of the jollity and merriment of the Frost Fair, Evelyn marks the disastrous effects the freeze had on, not just London, but the rest of England and even as far south as Spain. Trees froze and were split as if by lightning, the frozen seas and rivers meant ships could not get either in nor out, water, beer and wine froze solid and was sold by weight, and men and beasts died from the cold. There were severe food and fuel shortages and widespread starvation across the country. 

London's Wonder - Ballad celebrating the 1684 thaw

The Frost Fairs came to be known as Blanket Fairs, after the blankets used to make the booths and tents, and more Blanket Fairs followed whenever the Thames froze over. In 1739-40, the fair was held and a company of vintners bought an ox at Smithfield market, which was taken out onto the ice, slaughtered and then roasted on a spit. A fruit-seller, Doll the Pippin Woman, fell through the ice and was drowned and the fair ended in confusion when the thaw came suddenly and unexpectedly, bearing stalls, huts and shops away. 

The Frost Fair of 1814

The last Frost Fair was held in 1813-14, when severe ice built up in the river and finally froze into a mass and the usual shops were erected in what was called City Road. There were swings, skittles, sausage-sellers, singing, printers and book-sellers, and a sheep was roasted whole and sold as ‘Lapland Mutton’ at a shilling a slice. On February 5th the ice began to split and break apart and the shops and presses went into the water, as did several unsuspecting persons, several of whom were drowned. 

The Frost Fair on the Thames 1716

This was the final Frost Fair held on the frozen river, as old London Bridge was replaced in 1831, with wider arches that did not encourage the build-up of ice floes, the banks of the river had several embankments built upon them, increasing the speed and depth of the water and the climate began to warm, making it less likely for the Thames to freeze solid.

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