Researching London’s Frost Fairs

Frost Fair, Luke Clenell, 1814

Frost Fair, Luke Clenell, 1814

I have a new-found respect for authors of historical fiction. Well, perhaps not entirely new, but significantly heightened, deepened and broadened.

I have just begun my own research into London’s Frost Fairs; more particularly, the Frost Fair of 1814. If I step back in time, records show that, for many centuries, sections of the River Thames froze over during winter, sometimes for two or three months at a stretch. In 1410, for instance, The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London states:

And thys yere was the grete frost and ise, and most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men myght in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.

The Frost Fair of 168384

As the centuries passed, Londoners decided that the frozen river was a good opportunity for fun and frolicking—and for profit. By the seventeenth century, a tradition of Frost Fairs was underway. Possibly the mightiest one took place from early December 1683 to the beginning of February 1684. William Andrews’ Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs in Great Britain describes ‘another city’ that grew on the Thames at that time. There were, he says, a ‘great number of streets and shops with their rich furniture’, a variety of carriages, and ‘near Whitehall a whole ox was roasted on the ice’.

Wonders on the Deep, 1684

Wonders on the Deep, 1684

A 1684 broadside titled Wonders on the Deep; or, The Most Exact Description of the Frozen River Thames indicates the range of businesses and activities that flourished on the ice. As well as the horse racing and bull baiting, and the ninepins and skating, the broadside shows rows of shops stretching from Temple Stairs on the Thames’ north bank to the barge house in Southwark—there are coffee houses and beer gardens, toy shops and taverns, and booths selling knives and combs and hot gingerbread. (Hopefully, only empty vessels were available at the booth selling its wares under a flying chamber pot banner.)

The Frost Fair of 1814

Skip forward 130 years. London’s last Frost Fair was held in 1814. (The combined effects of the embankment of the Thames and the design of the ‘new’—and now replaced—1831 London Bridge put paid to further freezing of the river.) The British Museum holds a marvellous engraving, ‘taken on the Spot at bankside’, that shows the activity on the ice on 4 February 1814. Looking north, you can see St Paul’s, the Monument and St Magnus’s overseeing the revelry:

A view on the River Thames_1814

A View on the River Thames between London and Blackfriars Bridges (British Museum)

Frost Fair Keepsake_Jack Frost_1814

Frost Fair Keepsake (Museum of London)

As the frost that had settled in December 1813 rolled into January and then February of 1814, some Londoners’ ardour for their frozen river waned. In response to this disgruntlement, one witty soul printed a directive to Jack Frost (at right):

Historical Fiction

But, I digress. I started this post by acknowledging my growing respect for authors of historical fiction. As a reader, I started my foray into historical novels when I plundered my mother’s Jean Plaidy collection. My Intermediate (Year 10) History teacher allowed her students to bring history texts of their own choosing into class for ‘private reading’ at the end of the school year. I’m fairly sure that Plaidy’s Stuart Saga, beginning with The Royal Road to Fotheringhay, is not what she had in mind, but she indulged me nonetheless. Over the years, I’ve developed a real yen for fictionalised history—especially stories set in the UK. From Edward Rutherford’s London and Sarum to Rosemary Sutcliff’s tales of Roman occupation, from C. J. Sansom’s intriguing Shardlake series to Hilary Mantel’s absorbing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I have roamed across the centuries of England’s changing landscape. Seeing it built, layer upon layer.

My own research into the Frost Fair of 1814 may or may not lead to a work of fiction. It might depend as much on my stamina as my imagination. Although books and documents on the era abound (and they are increasingly accessible due to digitisation), I have at least one new question arising from every piece of information I discover. For example, the Frost Fairs took place in the area just west of London Bridge. I can visually position myself at the base of the bridge, looking south-west. Southwark Cathedral is on my right with Borough Market immediately behind it. But now I learn that the current location of London Bridge is about 55 metres west of the bridge’s 1814 location. (The 1814 bridge had stood since 1209. It was replaced in 1831 and again in 1973.) I need to find out where, exactly, the bridge met the north and south banks of the Thames in 1814. Did it abut the grounds of Southwark Cathedral (then known as St Saviour’s) or did it end closer to St Olaf’s Stairs? Fortunately, there are maps. I’ve even found one that seems purpose-drawn for me: Stranger’s Guide through London and Westminster 1814. At least I can be sure of one thing; Borough Market was not selling llama burgers and ostrich steaks in 1814, as it was on my visit two centuries later. It wasn’t, was it? … Perhaps I’d better check that, too.

Borough Market_1

Borough Market, with the Shard in the background, 2013

Links and Sources:

And for enough source material to last several lifetimes, visit British History Online.

The River Thames

The River Thames


Have you ever watched, via a webcam set in some fixed position, the ebb and flow of life at one geographical spot on the planet? For several years, I enjoyed the view from the webcam located beside London’s Albert Bridge, looking across the River Thames and onto Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk. That camera seems to be defunct and I have switched my allegiance to the one that streams from Trafalgar Square.

Photo: Bob Bowyer, via Creative Commons

Photo: Bob Bowyer, via Creative Commons

Because I am watching from the Southern Hemisphere, my view is often a night time one, but the hour of day makes little difference to the presence of traffic passing along the roads and footpaths. Red double-decker buses circle below Nelson’s gaze, taxis weave around buses, cyclists thread between both, and pedestrians mingle with them all. Even at 2:00 or 3:00 am, movement is continuous.

Of course, London was not always like this. At the turn of the nineteenth century, and even with a population already in excess of one million, the streets did not teem with activity in the pre-dawn hours. For one thing, there was no gas lighting until the 1810s so it was hard for anyone to find their way around the maze of streets, lanes and alleys in the faintly lit city. But, despite the dark, one kind of traffic was not entirely absent—the foot traffic of the nightwalkers.


Definitions from Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary

Definitions from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary

Matthew Beaumont’s illuminating (pardon the pun) book Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London covers the period from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century, and shines a light (sorry, there I go again) on those who were abroad during the hours of darkness. Nightwalking, Beaumont reminds his readers, was once illegal in England. To be out and about after a certain hour meant that a person was breaking curfew and could be charged with the crime of being a ‘common nightwalker’. Those on the streets in the earlier centuries of Beaumont’s investigation tend to be morally, socially or spiritually suspicious: roisterers and rogues, vagabonds and vagrants, indigents and inebriates, and, predictably, the prostitutes. These are the people Beaumont calls ‘noctivagants’. But a second kind of nightwalker evolved in the eighteenth century—the ‘noctambulants’. Noctambulants walked with some ‘pleasure-seeking or voyeuristic purpose’ or for ‘the sheer enjoyment of the act itself’ (Will Self’s definition, in the introduction to Beaumont’s book, p. x).

Beaumont then adds a third nightwalking group (perhaps a sub-class of the second)—déclassé artists and writers who were exiled from polite society and who could afford no means of travel other than by foot (170). This group included the lexicographer and ‘militant pedestrian’ (210) Samuel Johnson; Romantic poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth; and the post-Romantic journalist and novelist Charles Dickens. For these writers, pedestrianism had ‘assumed the form of an intellectual, political, even spiritual vocation’, invoking the much earlier ‘spirit of vagrancy’ (229).

Beaumont argues that nightwalking, ‘like writing poetry or taking opium’, was a way for some of these writers to foster a second self—‘a silent shadowy, mysterious other. It collapsed the dark recesses of the psyche into the labyrinthine spaces of the city’ (319).

Charles Dickens

In the case of Dickens, his ‘craving for streets’ (‘Letter to John Forster’, 20 September 1846) was an intrinsic part of his being. He divided his foot-propelled journeying into two kinds: ‘one, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond. (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, All the Year Round 3.57 (26 May 1860): 156).

A walk of the first kind took place in October 1857. Departing from Tavistock House in Bloomsbury at 2.00 am, Dickens proceeded directly to his Gad’s Hill Place home in Kent. Maintaining a brisk pace, he covered the 30 mile journey in a little over seven hours, arriving at his country home in time for breakfast. Presumably, he ate heartily.

Dickens’s nocturnal walks were more usually of the ‘objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond’ kind. In another of his many ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ columns, written for his literary journal All the Year Round, Dickens describes a time in his life when he walked the streets from a little after midnight until just before sunrise. The first hours of his solitary walks were spent in company with ‘the restlessness of a great city, and the way in which it tumbles and tosses before it can get to sleep’. Eventually, the ‘flickering sparks’ of nightlife would die away, the city would ‘sink to rest’ and ‘the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively on the river’ (3: 65 (21 July 1860): 349).

‘Another City’

Matthew Beaumont, like Dickens and others before him, has long been a nightwalker. He reflects that walking in a night time London, ‘no longer fighting against the traffic of cars and commuters’, is a discomforting experience and one that ‘involves displacements… The nighttime city is another city’ (3).

Even at Trafalgar Square, where the thrum of traffic does not abate, the night time scene from the webcam conveys that ‘otherness’ of which Beaumont speaks. Perhaps, in the electrified half-light, it is the undoing of the constraints and governances of the daylight hours. Maybe, in some future night, I will walk there and discover the city’s dark secret. But it may be, that in the process of nightwalking, the ‘dark recesses’ of my psyche will collapse and I will find, instead, my own ‘shadowy, mysterious other’.

Links and Sources

Trafalgar Square by Night, photo by Bob Bowyer. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Johnson, Samuel A Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers… Vol. 2.  London, 1755.

Beaumont, Matthew Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London Chaucer to Dickens. London: Verso, 2015.

Dickens, Charles ‘Letter to John Forster’, 20 September 1846, in Hartley, Jenny (ed.) The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. p. 174.

Dickens, Charles ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’. All the Year Round 3.57 (26 May 1860): 155-159; 3: 65 (21 July 1860): 348-352.

Cathcart, Michael and Matthew Beaumont ‘London’s Nightwalkers’, Books and Arts, ABC Radio National, 9 July 2015. (Audio download available here.)