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What Are Frost Fairs?

In 2021, a big part of the River Thames in London froze over. This natural occurrence amazed many people as it was the first time they saw the river freezing. But did you know that the river would regularly freeze over in the past?

The River Thames would freeze over at least once a decade between the 1400s and the 1800s. It was known that the ice was thick enough to hold “Frost Fairs,” where people would set up shops, pubs, and skating rinks.

Can the River Thames Freeze Over?

It is hard to believe that the River Thames can freeze over in today’s world. But in the past, it wasn’t an uncommon sight. According to historians, the great river in London froze at least 23 times between 1408 and 1814. However, it only lasted for a few days.

According to scientists, some factors allowed the great river to freeze in the past. The first factor discovered was that the overall climate of London was colder on average by about a degree in history. At the time, the Earth experienced a natural occurrence known as the Little Ice Age, which was caused by geological climate changes combined with volcanic eruptions and very low sunspot activity.

Another factor was that the great river was wider and shallower than today since it wasn’t restricted between solid rock banks. Another reason which allowed it to freeze was the narrow arches of the old London Bridge. The nineteen arches partially blocked the water on the upstream side, reducing water flow. These reasons led to a few days when Londoners enjoyed the solid surface of the river.

But despite it freezing in 2021, as it did in 1963, Londoners did not attempt to set up Frost Fairs. (Source: History Revealed)

London’s Frost Fairs

The first documented Frost Fair was held in 1608 when the Thames froze for six weeks. The fair enabled stranded seafarers to earn money as they waited for the river to thaw and they could resume their regular jobs on the waters.

People would set up shops on the ice, selling various items which visitors would purchase as a souvenir for their extraordinary experience walking on ice. Printers would also sell tickets customized with the customers’ names, making it a good memento.

Fairs were also often visited by the royalty. The tickets of Charles II and his court were discovered and preserved in the Museum of London. According to the ticket, the king visited the fair on January 31, 1684. Another royalty that visited one of the Frost Fairs was the Prince of Wales.

A surviving woodcut from the 1700s showed the usual activities one would expect when going to the Frost Fair. People played nine-pins, ate various foods like mutton or ox roasted right on the ice. It was also noted that seafarers turned their boats into sleds and allowed people to slide on the ice.

The last known Frost Fair occurred in 1814 as the temperatures maintained below freezing every night between December 27, 1813, and February 7, 1814. The people realized that another Frost Fair was on its way. No one knew that this was the last Frost Fair they would ever enjoy, thanks to the climate change the world experienced. (Source: Museum of London)

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