November 24th – On this day in 1434 a severe frost set in in London that was to last until the February of the following year, and the Thames froze over.
Further records indicate that in all the river froze over nearly forty times between 1142 and 1895, and that it became the site of impromptu “Frost Fairs” in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14. In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”. The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it! In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to as far up as Putney. And in 1813-14, thousands attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance! Then, in 1831, the demolition of the Old London Bridge, which had nineteen arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed the rate of flow of the river to increase to the extent that it became much less susceptible to freezing over.
The time was one of globally as well as locally cold climate, and came to be known as the “Little Ice Age”. Ranges of climate proxies indicate that temperatures at the time were significantly lower than those before or after, and most so in the late fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries. One possible reason for this is that so many people died of the “Black Death” in the mid-fourteenth century that woodland clearance decreased significantly, and therefore that woodland sequestration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere increased correspondingly.
Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002), and the stimulating and challenging Plows, Plagues & Petroleum – How Humans Took Control of Climate by Bill Ruddimann (Princeton University Press, 2005).