The Frozen Thames and the Little Ice Age

Posted By on November 19, 2013

The Frost Fair of 1683

The Frost Fair of 1683

The British news is full of headlines like “100 DAYS OF HEAVY SNOW: Britain now facing worst winter in SIXTY YEARS warn forecasters” and it is predicted that “Arctic air will roar in from the North Pole later this week, triggering the start of the worst winter in many people’s lifetimes.”1 Brrr!

These news reports and weather alerts started me thinking about the Little Ice Age which affected Europe and North America between 1300 and 1870, and which had its peak between 1600 and 1800. Can you imagine trying to cope with freezing temperatures without central heating, thermal undies and double-glazing? I can’t. We just don’t know how lucky we are, do we?

In A dictionary of chronology or The historian’s companion being an authentic register of events, from the earliest period to the present time (1835), Thomas Tegg records heavy frosts in Europe, including 1434 when the River Thames in London froze over “below bridge [London Bridge] to Gravesend” from 24th November 1433 to 10th February 1434, and 1683 when it froze for 13 weeks.2 In 1515 carriages travelled on the icy surface from Lambeth to Westminster and “it is said the frost and snow were so severe that five arches of London Bridge were ‘borne downe and carried away with the streame’.”3 We know from Edward Hall’s chronicle that the Thames also froze in the winter of 1536 and that King Henry VIII travelled to Greenwich on its frozen surface:

“This yere in Decembre was the Thamis of London all frozen ouer, wherefore the kyges Maiestie with his beautifull spouse quene Jane, roade throughout the citie of London to Grenewich.”4

The ice was often thick enough for fairs to be held on the Thames, these were known as frost fairs. Although the earliest recorded frost fair is thought to have taken place in 1608, in the reign of James I, Thomas Tegg records that the Thames was frozen for six weeks in AD 695 and that “booths were built on it”.5 In December 1564, boys played football on it and shot “at marks”,6 and Queen Elizabeth I is said to have also practised archery on it.7 The most famous frost fair is that of winter 1683/4, in Charles I’s reign, when the Thames was frozen from mid November to early February. The English writer, diarist and gardener John Evelyn recorded:

“Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.”8

And another witness wrote of “a street of booths built from the Temple to Southwark, where were sold all sorts of goods imaginable, namely, cloaths, plate, earthenware, meat, drink, brandy, tobacco, and a hundred sorts of commodities not here inserted.”9 Ladies shopped at these booths, while the men enjoyed skittles and bear-baiting.

Of course, even though Britain is set to suffer heavy snow and freezing temperatures the Thames is unlikely to freeze again. The last frost fair, which saw an elephant crossing the river, took place in 1814 when the Thames froze for the last time.10 Jonathan Schneer, in his book “The Thames”, explains that “with the replacement of old London Bridge by a new one with wider arches, the river continues to flow, no matter how cold”11 and we know that the Thames has been embanked several times since the early 19th century. It did, however, freeze upstream at Windsor in the Great Freeze of 1963, which allowed people to walk on it and children to play “bicycle hockey”.12

So, I don’t think there will be frost fairs, elephants walking on the ice or the Queen travelling by sleigh on the Thames this winter but I’m sure that Brits will make the best of the bad weather.

Notes and Sources

  1. 100 DAYS OF HEAVY SNOW: Britain now facing worst winter in SIXTY YEARS warn forecasters, The Express
  2. A dictionary of chronology or The historian’s companion being an authentic register of events, from the earliest period to the present time, Thomas Tegg (1835), p171
  3. Old and New London, Volume 3, Walter Thornbury (1878), p311-322
  4. Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, p823
  5. Tegg, p171
  6. Thornbury
  7. The Thames, Jonathan Schneer (2005), p72
  8. Evelyn quoted in London: Portrait of a City, Roger Hudson (1998), p8
  9. Thornbury
  10. River Thames Frost Fairs
  11. Schneer, p74
  12. Histories of Windsor: The Great Freeze of ’63

7 thoughts on “The Frozen Thames and the Little Ice Age”

  1. I found a great website that has details of the weather for the past 800 years and discovered that at one point in the 1580s the thaw was so abrupt to the west (presumably Oxford and the head of the Thames) that there were ice floes blocking the river at London and Westminster Hall was flooded and fish were flapping around inside.

    That description made me wonder what it was like to live in the countryside in the 16th century and how lucky we are in England to have a temperate climate. Whether the doom-mongers are right awaits to be endured, but there’s nothing we can do about it except buy the thermals and stock up the freezer, but hopefully it will be nothing like it was in the winter of 1962/63. That was more like it was in Tudor times.

  2. Shoshana says:

    Claire, I am so glad you published this article. Just the other day I was telling my husband that the Thames had frozen in Tudor times and he did not believe me. He said I had probably mixed up facts and fiction since I read so many books that are factual and others that are fiction about the Tudors. Now I can make him eat his words and collect on the bet we made; I shall get a gourmet dinner served on fine linen and eaten off china and crystal! All I can say to him now is “Neener Neener Neener!”

    1. Claire says:

      Hi Shoshana,
      See Thomas Tegg’s book in the link I gave in the article or at Google books for a list of years when the Thames froze. Enjoy your gourmet dinner!

  3. Elizabeth Smith says:

    We lived in England in 1963 on a farm near Mildenhall. We had no electricity as the area had not been wired yet. We had only a very small coal fireplace and a small Calor gas heater for warmth. No hot water. The weather was unbearably cold. It was an experience I will never forget. I know how people in earlier times felt and how they coped. Nevertheless we enjoyed our time in England and saw many of the historical places mentioned on this site.

  4. Anyanka says:

    Although temperature conditions in London are on a whole unlikely to freeze the Thames, there are far wider rivers that freeze in the winter. Especially here in Canada. It’s not unusual to see ice-breakers plying thier trade along the St Laurent river between Montreal and Quebec cities, both of which are further south than London.

    We lost power for 2 days last winter nad while it was only -5C outside, it was hard to keep the inside of the house over 13C by using wood fires and we have decent insulation and double glazing. we also had a small generator that we could use to provide hot water and simple meals. And of course we could drive to pick up take out..

    THere was a reality series filmed on the Canadian prairies which showed how 1800s pioneers coped with a Canadian winter.

  5. BanditQueen says:

    I read the book The Little Ice Age several years ago and we really have no idea today about the cold. The Thames was often frozen and temperatures were well below freezing in the winter for several hundred years. Then it was followed by a series of very hot and dry Summers. There are records showing great snow storms and snow and ice on the ground for months and although fun at times, for the ordianry people struggling to get around even near their cottage must have been really hard. It goes -7 here now for about 3 or 5 days and the entire place is chaos. In other countries it gets below -40 or even colder and they prepare for it. We have had snow periods for a number of years now lasting up to 2 weeks on low ground and for months on high ground; yet we always moan. Instead of moaning; prepare and see if your elderly or disable neighbours have everything that they need and look after them. When the TV people tell you it is going to be bad on the roads; stay put; your office will live without you! Go if there is no other choice and you need to visit a sick or old person or children, but other than that ask is your journey on a snow bound road really necessary as you are putting other people at risk getting stuck in the snow. Get clothing that helps you to prepare and get organised in advance. In Scotland they have to put up with snow for months and power cuts as well; in Canada they have always struggled because they have to. I am sure they also moan in other countries; it is just that here we do not really know what cold is. We think that we do; but going by the records of old and other countries we do not. In 1995 it froze and never fawed; I still had to go to college everyday and my husband had to walk five miles to work every day. I was born in May 1963 which means I was carried during the great freeze of 63 and my mother was unlucky to fall and nearly lost the baby; she was fortunate that we both made it. I was also raised without central heating with a coal fire and an outside loo that froze all the time. Students make me laugh when they come into a room and it is less than 90 degrees and claim it is cold. They do not put on enough clothes; and think it is hot out all the time and get a shock when it is not. They have no idea what cold is and still they moan.

    1. Jillian says:

      Happily for those of us in Britain, the BBC weather service and the met office have stated that there is no indication so far that the coming winter will be worse than usual and that 100 days of snow is extremely unlikely – the average is around 25! Even here in North East Scotland, we rarely get snow staying around for more than a couple of weeks at a time, and the local authorities are usually well prepared.

      Good preparation and past experience was probably the key in Tudor times as well. Due to the prolonged harsh winters, people had a fair idea of what to expect and would have laid in stocks of food and warm clothing. And Henry VIII and his courtiers wouldn’t have suffered too much – his most modern palaces were designed to keep iin heat and there were plenty of servants to keep the fires lit!.

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