March 4, 2014, by Lucy
Frost Fairs at the Museum of London
Last week I visited a small display at the Museum of London about frost fairs on the Thames. Frost fairs had a carnival like atmosphere and combined market stalls with street entertainments set upon the river near London Bridge. They took place on the Thames in years where the depth of ice was sufficiently thick to support great weights required. The river no longer freezes, not really because of a changed climate, but because the water is now much faster flowing. The arches of the old London Bridge acted to impede the flow.
The stars of the display are two paintings by the Dutch artist Abraham Hondius (c.1625-91), that depict the frost fairs of 1677 and 1684. In Hondius’ painting of 1677, Londoners skate, slide and throw snowballs. By 1684 the frost fair had grown to include lines of market stalls selling food and drink, and even printing presses, alongside entertainments and games including football, nine pins, stilt walking and fox hunting. John Evelyn wrote in his diary, ‘The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames, the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there had not been the like’ (1 January 1684). Hondius’ paintings are joined by a series of fascinating woodcuts and prints depicting frost fairs from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, and other artefacts and souvenirs of these extreme weather events.
More images of frost fairs can be viewed on the British Museum website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?searchText=frost+fair
The Museum of London exhibition marks 200 years since the last frost fair was held on the Thames in February 1814 (when a key part of the spectacle was when an elephant was led across the ice), and so also explores how extreme weather events are remembered, commemorated, and enter into the public memory. The production of paintings, prints and gingerbread, as well as exhibitions like this one all play a role. In 1684, for sixpence, the printer Croom sold souvenir cards written with the customer’s name, the date, and the fact that the card was printed on the Thames. Commemorative mugs were also produced and a few survive to this day. Frost fairs celebrated extreme weather and this exhibition brought light relief to the tales of hardship which are more commonly found in the archive!
The Thames frost fairs are the most famous of those held in the UK but similar events have been held on other rivers around the country. When the Trent froze in 1895 skaters were drawn to the river – you can see a photo here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/52064485@N08/5226082262/in/photostream/ We hope to explore some of these ‘provincial’ frost fairs during our archival investigations…
The exhibition is open until 30th March and you can watch a short video about it here: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats-on/exhibitions-displays/frost-fairs/