Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Frost Fair of 1683

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Susan reports:

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

9 comments:

Vanessa Kelly said...

What interests me is that even though the hardship was so severe, Londoners still found the time, money, and energy to enjoy the Frost Fair. But can you imagine how cold it must have been for those shopkeepers camped out on the ice? What an enterprising lot! I find it amazing that a printer even managed to set up shop.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

i agree, Vanessa. I have to think that they must have been a much hardier bunch than us modern wimps. *g* Even the King must have been cold. Anyone who has warmed themselves before a fire knows that the heat only reaches a few feet into the room, and grandest rooms in Whitehall Palace with high ceilings and tall, uninsulated windows must have been impossible to heat. But the novelty of the frozen river seems to have overcome personal discomfort, and, as you say, they were an enterprising lot!

Mme.Tresbeau said...

There was more than one London Frost Fair, wasn't there? I believe I read a book with a description of a regency-era one. I believe it was by Georgette Heyer, though I can't remember the title.

Hurlyburly said...

I find it interesting that John Evelyn is writing about the clouds of coal smoke compounded by the weather in the 1680s. This sounds like the infamous "London Fog" that permeated Victorian London during the winter months. We always think of the air as being clear long ago, but here is proof that man had already begun to poison things with pollution nearly 350 years ago, well before the so-called industrial age.

Linda Banche said...

The frozen river provided a huge tract of valuable real estate for the wonderful price of FREE!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Mme. T., you're right, there have been several other Frost Fairs on the Thames when the river froze. The last was in fact early in the19th c., before weather became warmer and the course of the river was "improved" to run faster. This last Frost Fair must have been the one used in Heyer book; however, I'm not enough of a Heyer-reader to be able to pinpoint the book, either. Anyone else?

Hurlyburly, John Evelyn is considered something of a visionary in regards to environmental matters, and he was one of the first to warn of the hazards of coal-fire smoke.

LInda, you're absolutely right! When else could a printer or other "low" merchant do business in such primo real-estate, right there close to Whitehall Palace? *g*

nightsmusic said...

Interesting that in those pictures, no one is dressed any warmer than they would have been at any other time in winter. I can't imagine spending all day on the ice like that though. My poor feeties would be frozen!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I saw that, too, Theo. You think of how bundled up people today get to, say, go skiing, or another outdoor winter activity -- yet these people look like they're off for a walk in park on a warmer day.

I just read a passage in Samuel Pepys' diary for a cold January day in 1667. He meets with the Swedish envoy -- who would surely know something about keeping warm -- on business, and Pepys is a little disgusted that the envoy appears "out of his bed in his furred mittens and furred cap." Guess this was considered disgracefully slovenly, but it sounds cozy to me! *g*

Michael Robinson said...

Printing on the ice -- the second is a subject close to Susan's heart.
"Portrait of Charles II in penmanship, drawn in an oval with calligraphic flourishes on all sides, printed on the Thames in the Frost Fair of 1684"
http://michaelrobinsonblogs.blogspot.com/2010/02/snow-showes-and-humours.html

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