London’s “Little Ice Age” and the Great “Frost Fairs”

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).

Frost Fair diorama

Frost Fair diorama, Globe Theatre Exhibition

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