Although it wasn’t called a frost fair, the first recorded event where traders set up booths on the surface of the frozen River Thames was in AD 695. It was almost a thousand years later that the first fair to be called a frost fair took place. This was again on the Thames, in 1608.
The 1683-84 Frost Fair on the Thames, with old London Bridge in the distance,
unknown artist, Yale Center for British Art
There were several years when small frost fairs were held, but the winter of 1683-84 was claimed to be the longest frost ever recorded up to that point. It started in mid-December and lasted a full two months, freezing the River Thames up to 11 inches deep. There was a frost fair held that was described by John Evelyn as 'a carnival on the water.' You could buy all manner of items from the booths of the fair, from silver cups and gingerbread, visit a hastily set up coffee shop, or play at nine pins.
A Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs, London,
Abraham Hondius, Museum of London
Over the severe winter of 1715-16, there was another two-month freeze of the Thames, and another big frost fair. Then, almost a quarter of a century later, in 1739-40, the winter here in the UK broke all records again, in terms of its severity. You guessed it, the Thames froze over for eight weeks again, and traders flocked to set up their booths on its icy surface.
The Thames floated with rocks and shoals of ice; and when they fixed, representing a snowy-field, rising every where in hillocks and huge rocks of ice and snow; of which scene several painters took sketches. Booths, stalls, and printing-presses were erected, and a frost-fair held on it: Multitudes walked over it, and some were lost by their rashness.
The 1740 Frost Fair
Yale Center for British Art
Although other rivers were reported to be frozen solid, it was the fair on the Thames that captured the public imagination. So it carried on throughout the eighteenth century. In the first days of January 1765, it was reported that:
[A] Frost Fair began on the canal in St James’s park, where many thousands met, some for skaiting, others for sliding; several of whom, by the ice breaking, had the misfortune to drop in up to their armpits, which caused great diversion to most of the spectators, notwithstanding it was with the utmost difficulty that many of them were saved from being drowned.
Frost on the Thames, 1789, Samuel Collings
Yale Center for British Art
In early January 1789, the Thames was completely frozen over from Putney Bridge upwards, and Londoners walked ‘to and from the different villages on the face of the deep.’
Opposite to Windsor-street, booths have been erected… and a fair is kept on the river. Multitudes of people are continually passing and repassing puppet shows, round-abouts, and all the various amusements of Bartholomew Fair are exhibited. In short, Putney and Fulham, from the morning dawn till the dusk of turning evening, are a scene of festivity and gaiety.
A View of the Thames from Rotherhithe Stairs, 1789
The last big River Thames frost fair was held during the Regency, in February 1814 when the river ‘presented a complete field of ice between London and Blackfriars Bridges.’ There were games of skittles, dancing with fiddlers providing the music, and drinking tents serving rum and grog.
Several respectable tradesmen also attended with their wares, selling books, toys and trinkets of every description. Those who made purchases were presented with a label, setting forth that the article was bought on the Thames frozen over.
Frost Fair on the Thames in 1814, Luke Clenell
At the same time, in Kelso, Scotland, the River Tweed was similarly frozen. Opposite Ednam House, a tent was set up on the ice by the landlord of the Queen’s Head Inn. There a dinner was served to ‘a numerous and respectable company’, who were warmed by stoves. One elderly guest had been present at the last time the town had given an entertainment like that. They had been a child when, in 1740, an ox had been roasted on the frozen river.
We’d never get away with holding a frost fair on a frozen river today! However, if you’re in Lancashire, The Travelling Historical Market are recreating a traditional frost fair on the grounds of the Tudor Heskin Hall. For two days, on 29 and 30 December 2021, they will be selling their unique, artisan goods from booths, dressed in period costumes and providing lots of festive cheer. Admission is free, and you can find out more here.
Frost Fair, 1684, Henry Gillard Glindoni
Grundy Art Gallery
Newcastle Chronicle, 5 January 1765
Hereford Journal, 26 February 1784
Kentish Gazette, 13 January 1789
Champion (London), 6 February 1814
British Library Untold Lives blog, A Carnival on the Water: The Frost Fair of 1683