The Little Ice Age and the River Thames frost fairs of the seventeenth century
climate (noun, 2): the characteristic weather conditions of a country or region; especially as these affect human, animal, or plant life
[Oxford English Dictionary]
Pieter Bruegel the elder, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ (1565)
Between the beginning of the fifteenth and the end of the sixteenth century the River Thames froze on several occasions. It may have done so during months of heavy snowfall between December 1407 and March 1408, when thousands of small birds reportedly died through a combination of hunger and extreme cold. It did so during the worst winter in living memory, a ‘great frost’ of fourteen weeks duration in 1410 that killed many wildfowl. It did so between late November 1434 and St. Valentine’s Day 1435, blocking the transportation of merchandise by river into the city while a ‘great multitude’ of birds died from hunger. It did so in winter 1464–65 when large numbers of cattle and sheep perished. It did so between January and February 1506, and again in 1515, enabling people to cross the frozen river with carts and horses. It did so in mid-December 1536 when Henry VIII and his queen, Jane Seymour, rode from London to Greenwich. And it did so between late December 1564 and January 1565, when some played football upon the ice while several courtiers entertained themselves with archery. Then men and women thronged to the Thames making it busier than any London street. Resourceful costermongers sold their wares to the crowd and played dice for apples on the ice. But a sudden thaw caused flooding both in the capital and throughout England, resulting in many drownings – especially in Yorkshire, where a bridge spanning the River Ouse was swept away. A further ‘great and sharp’ frost lasting from late October 1572 to early January 1573 was accompanied by deep snowfalls as well as rain that froze shortly after hitting the ground. So much ice gathered on tree branches that at Wrotham in Kent the weight caused them to break off.
Panorama of London by William Smith, 1588
During the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the River Thames froze completely – or nearly so – far more frequently than is usually thought. It did so between mid-December 1607 and late January 1608; in February 1621; between early January and early February 1635; in late January 1644 (full of ice); in mid-January 1649; in February 1655 (full of ice); in late November 1661 (hard ice); in December 1662; in January 1663 (full of ice); in December 1665; in December 1671 (almost); between mid-December 1676 and mid-February 1677; in mid-December 1677 (at Putney); in mid-January 1679 (full of ice); between the beginning of December 1683 and early February 1684; in early January 1689 (almost); in mid-January 1695; in January 1709; between the end of December 1715 and mid-February 1716; between late December 1739 and mid-February 1740; between late December 1767 and mid-January 1768; between late November 1788 and January 1789; in January 1811; and between late December 1813 and February 1814. Frost fairs were held on some of these occasions.
There would be further severe English winters during the nineteenth century – notably in 1838, 1855, 1860–61, 1879–80, 1881 and 1886–87. But the River Thames flowing through London and Westminster did not then completely freeze. Partly this was because of the demolition of London Bridge, which was replaced by a new bridge in 1831. Previously during times of extreme cold the old bridge’s many narrow arches had impeded the flow of ice eastwards along the Thames to the sea.
Claude de Jonghe, London Bridge (1632)
The first frost fair on the frozen Thames was held in January 1608. According to the chronicler Edmund Howes, December 1607 had been punctuated by hard, violent frosts between the 8th and 15th of the month, and again from the 22nd. By the 30th the river was passable in many places by foot. The ice remained firm throughout January, particularly during a spell of ‘extreme’ frost between the 10th and 15th. Although a slight thaw set in, the temperature dropped again on 19th and held until the 30th. Then on 1st February the ice began to gradually break. By afternoon the next day it had dissolved and disappeared.
This winter frost fair was similar to its summer dry land counterpart, Bartholomew Fair. Men, women and children ‘went boldly upon the ice’ although the slippery surface was likened to a ‘field of glass’. They entertained themselves in this ‘new found freezeland’ with football, bowls, archery, wrestling, running and dancing. Some teenagers conducted an ‘experiment’ by burning a gallon of wine, while an ‘honest’ woman asked her husband to get her pregnant upon the Thames. Enterprising local businesses also set up booths selling fruit, beer and wine. Shoemakers and barbers likewise plied their trade. A pamphlet was even printed concerning the ‘Cold doings in London’.
The Great Frost (1608)
Nonetheless, the ‘malice of winter’ exacted a terrible toll. Large numbers of wildfowl perished, while dead fish were washed upon the shore in many parts of the kingdom. Vegetation fared little better, with artichoke and rosemary destroyed. Thames watermen, whose livelihood largely depended upon the river taxi service they provided, were unable to work. A few people fell into the icy river in patches where it had thawed. Sometimes they crawled out ‘like drowned rats’ but at least one drunk sank to the bottom where a cold grave awaited. Then there was the plight of London’s poor. As shortges pushed up the prices of food and fuel many would have died had it not been for charitable relief. The surrounding countryside was likewise badly impacted. Starving rural folk lacked wood to burn to keep warm. Their sheep and cattle suffered. And the earth seemed barren. Ireland also suffered severely and the situation in France was apparently even worse.
Just a few years later, the winter of 1614–15 was notable for heavy and prolonged snowfalls. To quote an entry from the parish register of Winster, Derbyshire on 16 January 1615:
began the greatest Snow which was fell uppon the Earth within Man’s memorye. It covered the Earth fyve quarters deep uppon the Playne: and for heapes or drifts of Snow they were very deep, so that Passengers both Horse & Foot, passed over Gates Hedges and Walls – It fell … severall tymes and the last was the greatest to the general admiration and Feare of all the Land, for it came from the foure parts of the World, so that all Countreys were full, yea the South part, as well as these Mountaynes.
In February 1621 when the Thames froze again fierce winds and high tides pushed the ice in heaps so that in some places, according to an observer, it resembled rocks and mountains of a ‘strange and hideous aspect’. This inspired the waterman and poet John Taylor to compose some verse on ‘the Metamorphosis of the River of Thames’. Here Taylor described an impromptu frost fair:
There might be seen spiced Cakes, and roasted Pigs,
Beer, Ale, Tobacco, Apples, Nuts, and Figs,
Fires made of Charcoals, Faggots, and Sea-coals,
Playing and cozening at the Pidgeon holes:
Some, for two Pots at Tables, Cards, or Dice.
As with the bitter winter of 1607–08, so again there was widespread suffering. The watermen lacked employment. The price of fuel went up. And in this ‘gnashing age of Snow and Ice’ the shivering hungry poor begged the rich for charity.
Panorama of London viewed from Southwark, c. 1630
More dreadful seasons followed. Indeed, the early months of 1658 were extraordinary. In February Charles X Gustav of Sweden captured the Danish island of Funen by marching his troops stationed in the Jutland Peninsula across a frozen strait known as the Little Belt. At the same time, in the Dutch Republic the Ijsselmeer froze. Shipping was abandoned and instead passengers crossed from Stavoren to Enkhuizen using horse-drawn sleds. Further south at Vlissingen there was so much ice that shipping was heavily disrupted and communication cut off. News from The Hague reported over fifty ships wrecked. In the Spanish Netherlands the River Scheldt froze below Antwerp at Willebroek. At the English fort of Mardyck near Dunkirk the garrison experienced ‘a very hard winter’ with a ‘very great frost’. Warships and merchant ships were trapped by ice in the Channel. It was the same story at Dover: no ship could get in or out because of thick ice. The diarist John Evelyn described it as the most severe winter that anyone could remember. Fish, fowl and beasts perished. Even in Rome there was more snow than in living memory. Then, when the temperature rose in early March and the ice thawed, there was catastrophic flooding.
Another diarist, Samuel Pepys, remarked upon ‘cold’, ‘fine’, ‘hard’, and ‘great’ frosts between November 1660 and January 1669. When the Thames froze that decade the scientist Robert Boyle provided observations as to the thickness of the ice: about eight inches near the middle of the river and more than two yards on the banks. A further ‘terrible’ frost followed in winter 1676–77. From Lincolnshire came news of people losing their lives in ‘great drifts of snow’, while livestock likewise perished. At Wisbech, Cambridgeshire there was a dreadful accident when some boys playing football drowned as the ice suddenly broke under their collective weight. At London the frost was so extreme that thousands crossed the Thames by foot, cart or horseback. There was also a fair with tents set up near Westminster selling roasted meat and drink. When it thawed in mid-February the ensuing floods damaged bridges and drowned sheep and goats.
Then on 23 December 1683, after a week of ‘very bitter’ conditions, the Thames froze again. Evelyn noted that it was ‘unsufferably cold’. On 1 January 1684, while the weather remained ‘intolerably severe’ and the air ‘so very cold and thick’, booths were erected on the Thames. The frost fair of that winter, undoubtedly one of the coldest experienced in England in the last thousand years, is very well documented. Besides diary entries and correspondence there are pamphlets, ballads, pictures and even commemorative memorabilia.
Between January and mid-February 1684 thousands of people spanning the entire social spectrum, from King Charles II and members of the royal family to the lowliest pauper, ventured upon this ‘Freezeland’. They did so in carriages, on horse-back or by foot. At its height the fair extended from about London Bridge to Vauxhall. Eyeing an opportunity to make money, and with no ground rent to pay, a number of market stalls were set up. These were mainly constructed by otherwise unemployed watermen making a virtue out of necessity. A number specialised in catering. To drink there was beer, wine, brandy, coffee, tea and chocolate; to eat roasted oxen, beef, pies, oysters, fruit, confectionery and gingerbread – all, apparently, at inflated prices. Others sold earthenware, metal goods, toys and trifles. Entertainments included skating, sledging, music and dancing, together with football, bowls, ninepins, pigeon-holes, cudgels, horse racing, bull baiting, bear baiting, cock throwing and fox hunting. In addition, there were puppet plays and peep shows featuring tame monkeys, as well as fire-eating, knife swallowing and a lottery. Not to mention bespoke cards issued as mementos on the spot by a savvy printer. Unsurprisingly, the fair also attracted its share of petty criminals and prostitutes.
Meanwhile the poor were desperate, lacking money to eat and keep warm – the cost of food rose ‘at an excessive rate’ while the price of coal abruptly tripled. So Charles II authorised the bishop of London to organise a charitable collection in the city and its suburbs. He led by example, donating a large sum of money from the royal treasury. All the same, people died throughout the land, as did beasts, birds and fish. Burials were suspended because the ground was too hard to dig up. Trees split apart and plants perished. Along the coasts of England, France and Holland the sea froze, ice reportedly extending more than three miles from shore in some places. Consequently several ships were lost and international maritime trade halted throughout northern Europe, while communication networks were badly impacted. Some commentators interpreted these events as God’s punishment and accordingly called for repentance.
Abraham Hondius, frost fair on the Thames (1684)
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Most of the older literature dealing with the River Thames frost fairs saw them as curiosities from a bygone age. But they are much more important since they give a sense of how the inhabitants of London and the surrounding area endured and adapted to life during the Little Ice Age. Coined by a geologist in the late 1930s, the Little Ice Age is a contentious term some scholars use to describe lower temperatures in Europe and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere after the so-called Medieval Warm Period. It has no commonly agreed beginning (anywhere from about 1300 to 1500 is acceptable), while its end is sometimes taken to be about 1850. As for its impact upon life on our planet, that too is debatable. But one historian considers it to have played a major role in what he called the Global Crisis of the seventeenth century.
Certainly the history of seventeenth-century Europe is marked by rebellions, revolts and revolutions, not to mention war, plague, famine and natural disasters. All of which contributed towards extremely high mortality rates during this period. Moreover, the sources available to us to examine the extent to which the Little Ice Age played a part in causing and exacerbating these events are more plentiful than might be supposed. They have been divided into two types: ‘natural’ and ‘human’ archives. ‘Natural’ material includes ice cores, pollen samples, the size of certain trees’ growth rings and stalactites. ‘Human’ evidence – some of which I’ve drawn upon here – includes chronicles, histories, pamphlets, ballads, newsbooks, proclamations, administrative records, scientific and astrological treatises, diaries, letters, travelogues, ships’ logs and oral traditions, as well as objects and images in the form of paintings, engravings and woodcuts.
Admittedly, there are problems with the reliability of the ‘human’ evidence. Our sources contain inaccuracies, exaggerations and omissions. Scientific instruments were not yet sufficiently reliable to provide accurate temperature readings, nor were they regularly placed in the shade as we do today. Indeed, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit’s and Anders Celsius’s rival systems of measurement would not be developed until the first half of the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, we can get a good sense of what contemporaries regarded as extreme weather events when compared to what they perceived as normal. Furthermore, their experiences were sometimes recorded through the written word. So it’s worth noting that Anglo-Saxon vocabulary had earlier forms of expression for rain, wind, snow, ice, frost, hail, storm, flood and thunder. But from the mid-thirteenth century new terms associated with the weather came into the English language. Hence tempest (c.1250), hoar-frost (c.1290), lightning (c.1300), whirlwind (1340), deluge (1374), torrent (1398), inundation (1432), hurricane (1555), tornado (1589) and thunderstorm (1656), while later examples include snowstorm (1771), rainstorm (1799), downpour (1811), cyclone (1848) and blizzard (1859).
‘Weather diary’ of John Clopton of Little Wratton, Suffolk
Clearly, despite all the research that has been undertaken, there is still much to learn. It would be advisable to do this urgently. For if we are in the midst of another global crisis, as many believe today, then improving our understanding of how past societies documented, explained and dealt with the challenges of climate change can – and arguably should – inform some of the policy decision-making about our future.
An excellent piece, really cool indeed!