Category Archives: 18th Century London

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

The Frozen Thames in 1677

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.

Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Steps (1684).jpg

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.

Frost Fair in 1814.jpg

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.

Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), and Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002).

A voice from the past (Samuel Pepys)

Seething Lane Gardens (3) - Copy.JPG

On this day in 1703 Samuel Pepys died.  He is buried in the church of St Olave Hart Street, which to this day holds an annual service to  honour his memory.

The following are selected extracts from the entries in his diary for the days of the Great Fire of London in 1666:

“September 2d .  …  Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire … in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be … far enough off,   and so went to bed again … .  … By and by Jane comes and tells me that … the fire …  is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready … and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places … ; and … did see the houses at  that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge … .  So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant … , who tells me that it begun … In the King’s bakers in Pudding-lane, and hath burned  St Magnus’s church and most … of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and … there saw a lamentable fire.   …  Every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and …  bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one … stairs, by the waterside, to another.   … Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and … the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible … : I to White Hall, … and did tell the King … what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.  The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor [the singularly ineffectual Thomas Bloodworth]” and command him to … pull down  [houses].  At last met my Lord Mayor … .  To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman ‘Lord, what can I do?  I am spent: people will not obey me.  I have been pulling down   houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.

September 3d. (M)y Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, .., which I did, riding … in my night-gown, in the cart … .

September 4th.  … (T)o the Tower Street, and there met the fire burning … .  And … Sir W. Pen and I did dig [a pit], and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese … .

September 5th.  … About two in the morning my wife … tells me of new cryes of fire, it being come to Barking Church … .    I up; and finding it so, resolved …  to take her away, and did, and … my gold … ; but, Lord! what a sad sight it was by moone-light, to see the whole City almost on fire … .  Home, and whereas I expected to have seen our house on fire, … it was not.  … (G)oing to the fire, I find, by the blowing up of houses … by Sir W. Pen, there is a good stop given to it … ; it having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and … was there quenched.  I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw… ”.




Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Hackney was first recorded in 1198 as Hakeneia,  in 1222, from the  Old English personal name Haca, and eg, referring to an island in or peninsula on the River Lea.  In the post-Medieval period, it became a popular location for aristocratic country houses.  It remained semi-rural until as recently as the nineteenth century.

Church of St Augustine

The church of St Augustine was originally built here sometime before 1275, possibly on the site of and older, Norman or even Saxon church.    It was subsequently rededicated to St John sometime between 1660 and 1790, and substantially demolished between 1797-98, after a  new church dedicated to St John was built nearby.  Only the tower survives.

The church of All Saints, Fulham


Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Fulham was first recorded in around 705 as Fulanham, from the Old English personal name “Fulla”, and “hamm”, meaning land essentially enclosed by a bend in  a river.

The church of All Saints  was originally built in the early Medieval period,  rebuilt after having been damaged in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and rebuilt again in 1880-81.  The tower dates to around 1440.

In the churchyard lie buried, among others,   no fewer than ten Bishops of London.   The then Bishop of London, Waldhere,  had acquired land in Fulham in the eighth century, and a later Bishop had built a palace  here in the eleventh.

The church of St Nicholas, Chiswick

Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Chiswick was first recorded in around 1000  as Ceswican, from the Old English “ciese”, meaning cheese, and “wic”, settlement (and probably referring to a farm-stead specialising in the production of cheese).

The church of St Nicholas was originally built in the Medieval period, and rebuilt in the nineteenth century (in 1882).  The tower dates to the fifteenth century, around 1446.

Here lie buried, among others,   two of Oliver Cromwell’s daughters, Mary and Frances; Charles II’s mistress Barbara Villiers, the Duchess of Cleveland; and the artists William Hogarth (1697-1764), who owned a country retreat nearby (now “Hogarth’s House Museum”), and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

Hogarth’s tomb bears the following inscription (by his friend, the  actor David Garrick):

“Farewell great Painter of Mankind

Who reach’d the noblest point of Art,

Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind

And through the Eye correct the Heart.

If Genius fire, thee, Reader, stay,

If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear;

If neither move thee, turn away,

For Hogarth’s honour’d dust lies here”.

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London Churches

Nicholas Hawksmoor's London ChurchesChristopher Wren’s brilliant pupil and later successor Nicholas Hawksmoor built a number of equally impressive, yet individually distinct, churches in London in the early eighteenth century, namely, St Alfege Greenwich (1712–14), Christ Church Spitalfields (1714–29), St George-in-the-East (1714–29), St Anne Limehouse (1714–30), St Mary Woolnoth (1716–24) and St George Bloomsbury (1716–31).  He was also responsible for the spire of St Michael Cornhill (1715-24) and the west towers of Westminster Abbey (1734-45); and partly responsible for St John Horselydown (1726-33) and St Luke Old Street (1727-33).

(Sadly, St John Horselydown was substantially destroyed during and demolished after the Blitz, and  the surviving parts were subsequently incorporated into the London City Mission.  A photograph of the bombed church taken in 1940 shows a spire in the form of a fluted Ionic column similar to that of St Luke Old Street, topped by a weathervane supposed to be shaped like a comet, but in actuality more like a louse).

Hawksmoor’s brand of Baroque is characterised by an  imaginative use of geometry, with, as the architectural historian Ian Nairn put it, “intellect and emotion … exactly matched”, as exemplified in the distinctive proportions and broach spire of Christ Church, and in the towers of St Anne and St George-in-the-East.  It is also diagnosed by  constant allusion to antiquity, and in this sense may be said to anticipate the later Neo-Classical style. Note in this context the  serliana of St Alfege, and the  portico and pyramidal tower of St George Bloomsbury (the tower being modelled on descriptions of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World).

Readers interested in further details are referred to a new book written, and with architectural drawings, by the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design Mohsen Mostafi, featuring dramatic black-and-white photographs by Helene Bonet, and entitled “Nicholas Hawksmoor London Churches” (Lars Muller Publishers, 2015).

Nicholas Hawksmoor's London Churches

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London Churches

Top row, left to right: Christ Church Spitalfields; St Alfege Greenwich; St Anne Limehouse.

Middle row, left to right: St George Bloomsbury; St George-in-the East; St Luke Old Street.

Bottom row, left to right: St Mary Woolnoth; St Michael Cornhill; Westminster Abbey.

The Priory and Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem (“Bedlam”)


The priory of St Mary of  Bethlehem (“Bedlam”) was originally founded just outside Bishopsgate in the City of London in 1247, becoming a hospital  in 1329,  a mental hospital of a sort in  1403, and infamous for the shameful ill-treatment of its inmates by all and sundry thereafter.


It survived the Great Fire of 1666, but nonetheless required to be rebuilt  – as “The Palace Beautiful” – by Robert Hooke in Moorfields in 1675.


It was subsequently  rebuilt again at the junction of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road  in the Borough of Southwark in 1815 (on the site now occupied by the Imperial War Museum) …


… and finally relocated to the site of a former country house estate in Beckenham in the Borough of Bromley in Kent in 1930.



Corporation “Blue Plaques” mark  the two former City sites of the hospital (the Southwark site survives to this day, and has housed the Imperial War Museum since 1936).


The Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber’s (1630-1700) extraordinary statues of figures representing “Raving and Melancholy Madness”, that used to stand outside the old hospital in Moorfields, may now be seen inside the museum of the new one in Beckenham.




Also in the museum are other artefacts from the various incarnations of the hospital, including a padded cell, a strait-jacket and other restraints, and an Electro-Convulsive Therapy Kit.

Archaeological excavation work is currently ongoing on the  associated burial ground just outside Bishopsgate, originally established in 1569.  Among the 20000 or so Londoners  known from surviving records to have been laid to rest here are Robert Lockyer, a Leveller executed by firing squad during the Civil War, in 1649; and a number of people killed in Thomas Venner’s rebellion, in 1661.  Also  a large number who died in the Great Plague in 1665 (including one Mary Godfree, whose gravestone has recently been found).