The London Frost Fairs

07 January 2019

Cultural Studies | History

Now that the temperatures are starting to drop, it seemed only fitting to take a moment to look back on the London frost fairs- a phenomenon born out of the extreme cold weather that was experienced in Britain during the Little Ice Age, which lasted from roughly 1300 to 1850. Having gained my first insight into the frost fair from an episode of Doctor Who in which a monster was lurking beneath the frozen River Thames, I decided to seek out more information about the story behind the fairs.

Delving into the Victorian Popular Culture collection, I discovered fascinating accounts of the frost fairs held in London on the River Thames. Whilst there was sadly no mention of monsters, an article in The Illustrated London News detailed there having been 'booths of all descriptions; dancing, eating, drinking, smoking', along with 'fires blazing, sausages frying, fiddlers tuning, horns blowing, and groups of dancers in incessant employment and requisition'.

Image © National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

The account goes on to make the event sound like one big party on the Thames, noting that ‘as in the streetes, sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays, and interludes, cookes, tipling, and other lewd places, so that it seem’d to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water’.

It is even noted that members of the royal family took part in the festivities, with it being pointed out that 'King Charles visited the sports on the Thames' and that the royal family had their names printed on one of the commemorative sheets produced during the fair, as shown in the image below.

Image © National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

Of course, this was not the first time that such a fair had been held. Stow’s English Chronicle notes that in 1608 ‘the frost grew so extreme, as the ice became firme’ that ‘all sorts of men, women, and children, went boldly on the ice’ and there were many that ‘set up booths and standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere and wine, shoemakers, and a barber’s tent’.

However, this enterprising spirit amongst Londoners arose out of necessity since the Thames freezing over posed a threat to the livelihoods of merchants and traders as goods and passengers could no longer be transported along the river and major harbours were closed as a result of the freezing conditions, meaning that an alternative way of making money had to be found.

Image © National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Whilst there were no more frost fairs held after 1814 due to the combined impact of an increasingly mild climate, the demolition of London bridge, and the embankment of the Thames during the 19th century making the river less likely to freeze, the wonder of the frost fair did not disappear completely once temperatures started to thaw as illustrated by this quote from The Illustrated London News: 'When the thaw came, and the ice began to break, the view on the river was one which, in strangeness of effect, and ruggedness of grandeur, was never equalled in London'.

Image © National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited wihout permission. 

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About the Author

Rosie Burgoyne

Rosie Burgoyne

Having joined the Adam Matthew Editorial team as an Editorial Assistant in October 2018, I have since had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects including Mass Observation Online and the East India Company. My background is in literature and history and I am particularly interested in anything to do with Henry VIII, Victorian literature and the history of fashion, food and drink. 

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