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The Frost Fair: When Ice Means A Party

By Edie Cay
October 24, 2023

If you’ve never heard of a Frost Fair, have no fear, they were rare. In fact, only nine ever occurred.

A Frost Fair happened when the Thames, the river that winds through London, England, freezes over so completely that houses could be built upon the ice. For those who are familiar with Northern climes, this is a common–yearly–event. But the Thames is a fast-flowing, crowded river. Freezing solid was extremely rare. And what rare event doesn’t call for a party?? The first Frost Fair occurred in 1564 and the last in 1814.
Despite the fascinating climate science these chilly parties inspired, it was also one of those occasions where people of all social classes mixed. While ice skating on a still pond out in the country was not uncommon, ice skating on the Thames next to a duchess? Rare.
Each time it was held, the festivities seemed to grow larger and larger. Booths were erected to sell liquor, ale, brandy, and wine. Cooking establishments popped up, allowing people to stay out all day on the ice, knowing food was nearby. There was dog-baiting, bear-baiting, musicians busking in different parts of the ice. Even a printing press was dragged out onto the ice, where people could pay to put their names on a piece of paper that could be pasted into a book to commemorate the experience.
During the 1715-1716 Frost Fair, even the Prince of Wales showed up, the man who became the future King George II.

1683-1684 Frost Fair, London Bridge in the background

Frost Fair in Print

The Frost Fair I write about in Beneath A Midwinter Moon is the 1788-1789 freeze, which started on November 25th and lasted seven weeks. The frost was so bad that it was 11 degrees below freezing in the middle of London on January 5th (That’s 21F and -11C.) The people of London were unprepared for the two month onslaught of freezing temperatures and many people ran out of coal to heat their homes. The Prince of Wales (a different one—this was the future George IV) donated 1000 pounds to help the poor of the city.
Still, on the river, an entire new town was built, with wild animals, puppet shows, places to eat and drink, and “all the various amusements.” There were pigs and sheep roasting, and one magazine reports that it was like the summer Bartholomew fair—a pleasure fair—but “multiplied and improved.” It was a city unto itself for seven weeks, and everyone on the ice was happy and free of worry.
Even so, subscriptions were taken up to help those who were out of work due to the frozen river—people who depended on flowing water to make a living. Boat captains, traders, watermen, oystermongers, and more were unable to work. It is reported that an extra 1500 pounds was raised to help those who normally did not need alms for the poor. In my story, “Hand in Hand-pies,” the Frost Fair is the reason young Bess Abbott finds her career of prizefighting. It begins with the out-of-work watermen (the men who ferried regular people and goods across the river) sitting around a small fire on the ice.
Of course, after researching this for a short story, I could not resist using this incredible setting of these Frost Fairs in the last book in my series When the Blood Is Up, either. In 1814, there were booksellers and dancing establishments as well as all the amusements outlined above from the 1789 Frost Fair. What better place to let my upper class and lower class characters mingle?

Reference:
B.A. Thurber, ed. Frostiana, Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State (Skating History Press, 2018). *Main text originally published in 1814 in commemoration of the 1814 Frost Fair.

1740 Frost Fair, this etching was printed on the ice, available, no doubt, for a price.

 

Edie Cay

Written by Edie Cay

Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website, www.ediecay.com

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    Amazing history, what an event to wite about.

    Reply

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