That time an elephant walked across the surface of the Thames…

I was originally thinking of starting this blog with a recounting of the Great Stink of 1858, but I decided to go with something a little more seasonal. With Winter Storm Diego expected to dump up to 20 inches (50.8cm) of snow on parts of the southern US today and tonight, I’m in the mood to talk about how lovely winter can be when you don’t have to drive to work during an ice storm.

These days in London, the average high temperature in December and January is 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius — well above freezing). This isn’t a discussion of climate change (it’s not that kind of blog; I’ll leave my political opinions to myself and thank everyone else to do the same), but it’s important to realize that the world was much cooler a few hundred years ago than it is today. Whether the world really is getting warmer or not today, between the 1400s and 1800s, the world was in the middle of something called The Little Ice Age. Solar activity and a number of volcanic eruptions no doubt contributed to this trend, and it arguably changed the course of civilization (anthropologist Brain Fagan has an interesting and detailed book on the causes and implications of the event, aptly called “The Little Ice Age”).

But, rather than talking about disease, famine, and the difficulties involved in keeping warm in an era before central heat or well-insulated walls, I want to talk about the London Frost Fairs. Between 1408 and 1814, the Thames completely froze over in London 24 times. Some years, the ice was so thick and wide-spread that it was possible for people to walk or skate across the river. Enterprising merchants would set up stalls to sell goods and services to the Londoners enjoying the novelty of the frozen river. After all, who doesn’t want a nice cup of hot tea or cocoa after ice-skating? Eventually, the scope of the thing increased and, in the early 1600s, the Frost Fairs were born.

“Thames Frost Fair, 1683-1684” — Thomas Wyke
(public domain)

The above shows the 1683-84 Frost Fair. That year, the ice on the Thames was 11 inches deep, and the freeze lasted from December of 1683 to February of 1684. Normally, such freezes weren’t so intense and didn’t last very long. When the ice started to break up, it was rapid and unexpected, and people often had to run for their lives. In 1789, an unexpected thaw caused a number of deaths.

The Fairs weren’t a yearly occurrence. The ice was seldom thick enough to make that safe. But, when they happened, they must have been a welcome treat to distract the populace from the bitter cold and all the problems that came with it. I grew up in a town with a large river running through it and, despite the relatively cold winters in Indiana, the river never froze sufficiently to allow for something like this to go on.

It must have seemed like something out of a fairy tale to the inhabitants. Winters can be harsh and unpleasant, but there’s also an undeniably beauty to them, too. Seeing winter take this much of a hold on a city largely unaccustomed must have been enchanting. It would certainly have been an exciting diversion.

“Frost Fair of 1683” — William Andrews (1887)
(public domain)

The last London Frost Fair took place earl in February of 1814, and lasted only a few days. By then, the climate had grown noticeably warmer. Other changes (most notably the embankment of the Thames and the destruction of the old London Bridge) made the river less likely to freeze over, even in years with low temperatures. Part of me wonders if the revelers of 1814 knew that it was the end of an era.

Whether it did or not, the event was celebrated in style. Food and other goods were sold, entertainers were out in force. There must have been children running everywhere, and adults looking around with wonder and delight. A book was written on the history of the Frost Fairs that year, and a printing press was brought onto the ice to produce copies to be sold to Fair-goers. Most interestingly (and with true Imperial British ostentation and bravado), an elephant was brought down onto the ice and crossed the river near Blackfriar Bridge. Considering how few citizens had probably seen an elephant up close in 1814, it must have been a sight to behold.

An engraving, commemorating the Fairs, can be found under Southwark Bridge today, and depictions of the Fairs have been found everywhere from popular literature to TV shows like Doctor Who. If I could go back in time for a few hours, attending one of these Fairs would definitely be on my list.

“The Frost Fair of 1814” — Luke Clenell
(public domain)

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