As cold as this January has been for most of North America, it still can't hold a candle (or an icicle) to the Great Frost of 1683-84 in England, the worst on record. Not only was the Thames frozen solid to a depth of nearly two feet, but the seas, too, were frozen, with ice extending several miles into the ocean. Shipping was at a literal stand-still, food and wood were scarce, and the suffering among the poor was unimaginably severe. Wrote the diarist John Evelyn:
"The fowls, fish, and birds, and all our plants and greens universally perishing. Many parks of deer are destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear that there were great contributions to keep the poor alive...London, by reason for the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of sea-coal...that one could hardly breath."
Yet for Londoners, the response was natural: a Frost Fair. The frozen river was turned into a small, frivolous town on the frozen ice. Overnight a makeshift street of shops, taverns, coffee and chocolate sellers, and even a brothel appeared, and every sort of sport and amusement, from puppet shows to carriage races to bear-baiting to a whole roasting ox could be found on the river.
From the week before Christmas until early February, the Frost Fair was THE place to see and be seen. Even King Charles II was a frequent visitor. But while at last a thaw came to put an end to the sport, the memories (and the poetry) have lasted much longer:
BEHOLD the Wonder of this present Age,
A Famous RIVER now becomes a Stage.
Question not what I now declare to you,
The Thames is now both Fair and Market, too.
And many Thousands dayly do resort,
There to behold the Pastime and the Sport
Early and Late, used by young and old,
And valu'd not the fierceness of the Cold....
Click here for the rest of the poem, and more about the Frost Fair of 1683. And look closely at these prints from the time, which have as many weird little details as "Where's Waldo?"
Top: Great Britain's Wonder, print sold by Robert Walton & John Seller, 1684
Center: The Frost Fair of 1683, anonymous engraver
Bottom: Thames Frost Fair, by Thomas Wyke, 1683-84