Category Archives: 19th 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).

Poverty and  Poor Relief in Westminster in the Nineteenth Century

Booth Poverty Map.JPG

It might seem incongruous to be discussing poverty and poor relief in what is now the – at least outwardly – conspicuously wealthy City of Westminster.  However, throughout much of its long history, Westminster was at the poverty-blighted ragged outer edge of the built-up area of London, as can be clearly seen on William  Booth’s “Poverty Map” of 1889 (gold denoting wealthy, in Booth’s judgement; shades of red, well-to-do and comfortable; purple, mixed; shades of blue, poor and very poor; and black “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal”).

In the nineteenth century, after the  passage of the  “New  Poor Law” in 1834, the –  “deserving” – impotent poor continued to be cared for in alms-houses, and the – “undeserving” – idle poor  to be sent to “Houses of Correction”.   However, the – “deserving” – able poor were now refused “out-relief”, and made  to work in workhouses, where conditions were quite deliberately made sufficiently inhumane  as to deter extended stays.  The workhouse system was only finally abolished as recently as 1930, and indeed many former workhouses remained in use until 1948.

In Westminster, the old Tothill Fields Bridewell was demolished in 1834, and replaced by the Tothill Fields Prison.


The Prison was closed in 1877, when the prisoners were transferred to nearby Millbank Penitentiary, and it was demolished in 1885, its former site now occupied by Westminster Cathedral.



Millbank Penitentiary was in turn closed in 1890, and demolished in 1902, its  former site now occupied by the Tate Britain.


Far-Flung Lost London VII – Fulham

Fulham Palace was originally built in the eleventh century, as an official residence for the Bishop of London.  The oldest part of the present palace, surrounding the Fitzjames Quadrangle,  was built by Bishop Kemp in the late fifteenth century (circa 1495) and Bishop Fitzjames in  the early sixteenth (1506-22).  The  rest of the palace is  eighteenth to  nineteenth century.  The palace is currently in the care of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, and parts of it are open to the public, as also are the extensive grounds, with their notable botanical collections.

Entrance to Fulham Palace

Entrance to Fulham Palace

Fitzjames Quadrangle

Fitzjames Quadrangle

Victorian Gothic Lodge

The Victorian Gothic Lodge

The Mother of Parliaments

The Ship of State
Forever teatime

Today (3rd October) I went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament,  also known as The Palace of Westminster (*).  I found it a strangely moving experience, simply being in the space where so much history has been made.  And felt a particularly strong  surge of emotion on being reminded by the guide of Charles I’s  attempted unconstitutional arrest of five Members of Parliament here in 1642 – essentially the last in the series of events that led to the Civil War.  One of the said “Five  Members” was my distant relative John Hampden, who went on to fight on the Parliamentarian side in the War, and was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chalgrove Field. 

The Old Palace was purportedly originally built for Cnut in around 1016, and subsequently rebuilt by Edward, “the Confessor” in 1042-65, and extended by succeeding kings, with Westminster Hall eventually becoming the seat of Parliament, to be succeeded, in 1548, by the then-secularised Royal Chapel of St. Stephen.

Westminster Hall exterior
Westminster Hall interior
Some of  the palace complex was  destroyed in a fire in 1512; and most of what remained, in another, in 1834, with essentially only Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower surviving to this day, together with parts of the Royal Chapel of St. Stephen, including the St Mary Undercroft.
Jewel Tower exterior
Jewel Tower interior
Westminster Hall was originally built as a royal residence cum banqueting house by William II, Rufus,  in 1097-9; and rebuilt, with a spectacular hammerbeam roof, by Henry Yevele, for Richard II, in 1394-1401.  The Jewel Tower was originally built by Henry Yevele, for Edward III, in 1365-6.
The New Palace was built by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin, in the Victorian Gothic style, in 1837-58.
Victoran Gothic extravagance
Victorian Gothic aspiration

(*) For those wanting to see inside the Palace of Westminster – here is a link to the official website with details of how to book …