header('Cache-Control: max-age=259200'); A Regency Primer on The Last Frost Fair - Kristen Koster
Jan 242012
The Frost Fair, London 1814.

In the last entry in the Regency Primer Series we learned three ways to tie a Regency era cravat. This week, we’re going back in time to the last last frost fair. The last time the River Thames was frozen solid and the ships stood still and Londoners organized an impromptu festival in the middle of the river was in 1814.

The Little Ice Age

The Last Frost Fair: Painting of London Bridge Frost Fair in 1814.

London Bridge Frost Fair 1814

Between 1408 and 1814, the Thames River froze over 26 times in great solid sheets of ice. During this period, British winters were harsher and the river was wider and slower moving than it is today. This period was referred to as “The Little Ice Age” as a description of the severe winter weather characterized it.

The Last Frost Fair: Painting of the frozen Thames River off Three Cranes Wharf in 1814.

View of the Frozen Thames River off Three Cranes Wharf in 1814.

The Frost Fair of 1814 began on February 1st, lasted for four days. No one knew it  was to become the last Frost Fair in London, but the previous time the Thames had frozen over was in 1795. The city was ready to brave the ice and celebrate with a sprawling festival in the middle of the river.

John Ashton described the frolickers of the Frost Fair in his book, Social England under the Regency. He mentions that they drank in tents “with females,” played skittles, and danced reels. He also includes depictions of more sedate coffee-drinking and gaming booths. Printing presses were set up on the ice to print souvenir cards. The Annual Register noted that the frivolity continued until the ice began to break up forcing people scrambled for safety, not all successfully.

Old London Bridge Demolished

The Last Frost Fair: The Frost Fair, 1814 LondonIn addition to the climate growing milder, Old London Bridge was demolished in the 1830s and the new bridge supported wider arches, allowing the tide to flow more quickly and freely past. Combined with the embanking of the river that occurred during the 19th Century, this sped up the current and prevented the Thames from fully freezing over again.

The Last Frost Fair: The Frost Fair, London 1814.

The Frost Fair of 1814, by Luke Clenell.

“Gambols on the river Thames, Feby. 1814” by the famous caricaturist, George Cruikshank, shows a frost fair in the region of Blackfriars Bridge. As was his custom, no one was safe from ridicule and mockery. To the right in the foreground is a waterman with skittles and behind him a man’s wooden leg has caught in the ice. To the right is a printing press and in the center a woman has slipped on the ice next to a fiddler playing music as a couple dances.
The Last Frost Fair: Gambols on the River Thames, Feby. 1814 by George Cruikshank

Never Say Never

In true British fashion, in 2003 there was a revival of sorts of the spirit of the Frost Fairs of old. In Bankside, the one-day festival quickly grew to an event that spanned two weekends. The Bankside Winter Festival was modeled after the Christmas markets and featured many other events, including a lantern parade. Unfortunately, it looks as if 2008 was perhaps the last time it was held. I’d love to be proven wrong! It sounds like an amazing time.

More information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.

  2 Responses to “A Regency Primer on The Last Frost Fair”

Comments (2)
  1. I read about this, surprisingly, in a YA book “Iron Hand”. Very cool!!!

    • Very cool, Jen. I’ve read a couple of Regencies written that briefly mention it, but I understand there are a few out there where it’s much more central. It seems like a great, romantic time until you get to the part about people scrambling for their lives as the ice began to break up!

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