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1814 Frost Fair

It was an exceptional winter that caused ‘Old Father Thames’ to freeze solidly enough for people to walk across - rather than pay a boatman or the toll on the bridge - but the holding of fairs on such occasions had a long history. There were fairs in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1715, 1739, and 1789.

In 1811 the river froze hard, leaving only a narrow channel, so that people could walk on it from Battersea Bridge to Hungerford Stairs. But only three years later it froze hard again at the beginning of January after a week long fog. Tthe streets were piled high with snow, the ice on the river dirty and "lumpy" but firm enough on the 30th for seventy people to walk across from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. More people soon ventured onto the ice and by Monday Feb 1st the river was so solid from Blackfriars Bridge to some way below Three Crane Stairs that thousands were tempted onto it.

The new City Road

By Tuesday the whole area was a fair. The main ‘road’ was named the ‘City Road’ and went straight down the middle of the Thames rather than across. It was lined on both sides with about thirty stalls, decorated with streamers, flags amd "signs", set up for the sale of porter, spirits, and other drinks (unlicensed!) as well as for skittles, dancing, and a variety of games. The next day, Wednesday, was the same. In addition eight or ten printing-presses had been erected, the typographers setting up their type for the printing of cards and broadsides to commemorate the ‘great frost.’ One of the presses hoisted an orange-coloured flag, with ‘Orange Boven’ written on it in large letters. This referred to the restoration of the Stadtholder to the Government of Holland, it having been for several years subject to France.

A small sheep roasted on the ice drew quite a crowd - though they were charged sixpence to view it. The meat was afterwards sold at a shilling a slice as ‘Lapland mutton.’

It was still not wise to stray too far. A plumber called Davies tried to cross near Blackfriars Bridge carrying some lead and fell through the ice. Two young women were luckier when they fell in, being rescued just in time by Thames watermen.

"All the fun of the fair"

Yet on Thursday to most people the ice seemed to be a solid rock. The fair continued to grow and attract more visitors. There were swings, bookstalls, skittles, dancing-booths, merry-go-rounds, sliding-barges, just like Greenwich and Bartlemy Fairs. Friday the 4th brought even more, and scores of pedlars. Books and toys - anything - labelled with the words "bought on the Thames," found an easy market at a silly price.

The Thames watermen, far from being ruined made a huge profit by charging a toll of twopence or threepence to enter ‘Frost Fair;’ - and demanding a tip on leaving. Some were rumoured to have made up to £6 a day.

That afternoon, however, the ice cracked above London Bridge, a large piece carrying away a man and two boys through one of the arches. They had the good sense to lie flat and were rescued by some Billingsgate fishermen.

For the remainder of the week the fair remained in full swing, the ‘City Road’ between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge crowded till after nightfall.

Ominous signs of a thaw

On Saturday the 5th the wind turned to the south, with a slight fall of snow and sleet. Undeterred, thousands returned to the fair, and were tempted by donkey rides for a shilling. Later that day the crowd thinned as rain began to fall and the ice to crack, threatening stalls, donkeys, printing-presses, and all.

The thaw was rapid. In spite of warning from the watermen two young men went on the ice above Blackfriars Bridge and were carried away. On Sunday morning, February 6th, at an early hour the tide began to flow and to break up the ice. On the Monday huge ice-floes washed to and fro with the tide, carrying off many barges and lighters from their moorings above the bridge so they were quite quickly wrecked and sank. In no time the ice was quite gone and the river flowing as usual though the frost lasted altogether till the 20th March.

So ended the last Frost Fair. London Bridge was rebuilt upstream in 1823 and the old one demolished in 1831. The new arches re-directed the flow of the river so that it was too swift to freeze. Vauxhall Bridge, the first cast-iron one, was built in 1816, Waterloo Bridge in 1817 named for the Battle of 1815, Southwark Bridge in 1819.

The whole area of the South Bank was transformed with the coming of the railways - yet more bridges - and the opening of Waterloo Station.

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