Londoners get used to seeing animals that you might not expect in the city. Visitors to Docklands often see seals – apparently there are over 700 living in the Thames, while a regular sight on the Strand is a gentleman walking his ferret. It’s unlikely that any Books & the City readers have seen a pig floating down the Thames on an iceberg, or an elephant walking across the river, but these events really happened during the last Frost Fair in the winter of 1814.
200 years ago, according to the Cheltenham Chronicle of 20 January 1814
“A pig was yesterday seen sailing down the river Thames between Westminster and Blackfriars-Bridge on a large fragment of ice, with great gravity. He occasionally squeaked with peculiar shrillness, which a waterman construing into a paii [?] for a pilot, he put off and after a long contest with the floating masses of snow, he succeeded in delivering the swinish navigator from his perilous situation”
By the start of February the Thames was frozen over completely and the last Frost Fair was underway. According to the Times of 2 February,
“The Thames …continued to present the novel scene of persons moving on the ice, in all directions and in greatly increased numbers. The ice, however, from its roughness and inequalities is totally unfit for amusement though we observed several booths erected on it for the sale of small wares; but the publicans and spirit-dealers were most in receipt of custom…we did not hear of any lives being lost but many who ventured too far towards Blackfriars bridge were partially immersed in the water by the ice giving way.”
You can check out the Times of 1814 for yourself by logging in with your Westminster library card on our Online Resources page.
The Frost Fair lasted for four days. A sheep was roasted, skaters skated, skittles were bowled, enterprising printers set up presses to print cards and flyers ‘on the ice’, and a good time was had by all (except the sheep). One printer, George Davis, managed to publish a 124 page book during the fair. It was called (deep breath now)
Frostiana; or, A history of the River Thames, in a frozen state; with an account of the late severe frost; and the wonderful effects of frost, snow, ice, and cold, in England, and in different parts of the world; interspersed with various amusing anecdotes. To which is added, the art of skating
You can read a rather splendid facsimile of this book as part of the John Johnson Collection, another of our online resources that you can access simply by entering your library card number.
Once the ice melted after four days, that was the end of Frost Fairs in London. However it was not the last time the Thames froze – there was plenty of ice in 1895 and the river froze at Windsor in 1963. However, the demolition of the old London Bridge (which originally had 19 arches that slowed the flow of the river) and the building of a new one in 1831, plus the creation of the Embankment led to a faster flowing river. Sadly it’s unlikely any of us will be skating to work along the Thames any time soon, but you can still find a reminder of the Frost Fairs in the pedestrian tunnel on the south side of Southwark Bridge where there is a series of engraved friezes by the sculptor Richard Kindersley including the inscription
Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence and Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done