Frost Fairs: A Festive Celebration

Frost on the River Thames, Samuel Collings (1788)
On several occasions, it has been so cold here in Britain during the winter that the River Thames has frozen over. Between 1309 and 1814, it is estimated that the river had frozen over at least twenty three times. On five of those occasions, the ice was so thick that it was able to support a fair, with all sorts of festivities taking place on the ice. These gatherings became known as ‘frost fairs’ and included stalls selling gingerbread, printing presses generating souvenirs, the playing of games and the consumption of many alcoholic beverages.

It was common for artists to document the frost fair, making drawings, paintings, engravings and woodcuts. Some of the souvenirs that were made during the frost fairs are still around today, with a silver spoon thought to be from the fair in 1684 to be found within The Museum of London’s collection. A ticket from the same fair, also in The Museum of London’s collection, commemorates the visit of Charles II to the frost fair, suggesting these festive celebrations were widely enjoyed.
Frost fair Christmas Market 1684 Charles II
The last ever frost fair was held in February 1814. The Times, who covered the fair in their newspaper that month, reported “in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon”. Although no deaths were reported, it is clear that the frost fair could be quite a hazardous venture and this no doubt added to the excitement they generated. It is thought the highlight of the frost fair in 1814 would have been the roast ox that was now a tradition to have cooked on the ice, capable of feeding somewhere around 800 people. Food historian Ivan Day has estimated that it would have taken over twenty four hours to roast the ox in front of a fire. What a feat! 
Frost Fair 1814 Regency Christmas Market
Frost Fair on the River Thames, Burkitt & Hudson (1814)
Sadly, it is unlikely that the River Thames will ever freeze over again to the thickness necessary to support another frost fair. However, it is truly remarkable that several souvenirs from these frost fairs have survived and can tell us something about these festive gatherings. Although we may not get to experience a frost fair, we are fortunate enough to have several other festive events, such as the much loved Bath Christmas Market. It might not be on ice but it is certainly still very wintery!
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