From the 15th century to the 19th, a period of more than 400 years, Europe has been
gripped by the so-called Little Ice Age, a time of short summers and cold winters.
Glaciers would slide down into once-warm valleys and cause waterways to freeze over.
This was the case in England, where the Thames River froze frequently. Even Henry VIII
is said to have traveled across the frozen expanse of water from London to Greenwich by
sleigh during the winter of 1536. Queen Elizabeth I also took walks on the ice during
the winter of 1564. Citizens also celebrated New Yearís Eve on the ice. In January 1608,
the first of many Frost Fairs began. Entertainment included archery contests, ball
games, dances, and bowling matches, while vendors sold food, beer, and wine from booths.
The greatest Thames Frost Fair was held in the winter of 1683, when the river was
covered over with ice ten inches thick for two months. Another city was constructed over
the ice - formal streets were laid down, vendors and shopkeepers moved in, and games,
like bull baiting, horse and coach races, and puppet shows, played. Eating, drinking,
and merriment went on daily. An entire ox was even roasted out on the ice. One of the
fairís most popular attractions was run by a printer by the name of Croom. For sixpence,
he sold souvenir cards written with the customerís name, the date, and the fact that the
card was printed on the Thames. King Charles II even bought one.
The fairs were often brief affairs, put up and torn down depending on the weather. Rapid
thaws of the ice resulted in the loss of both property and life. In January 1789, and
melting water dragged at a ship anchored to a riverside public house, tearing the house
down and crushing five people.
The Frost Fair beginning February 1, 1814, was taken down just four days later. The
usual games, races, and drinking were accompanied by the roasting of a sheep. An
elephant was led across the Thames River below Blackfriars Bridge. A printer named Davis
published a 124-volume entitled Frostiana; Or a History of the River Thames in a
Frozen State. The book was finished printing on February 5, just hours before the ice
cracked and booths, merchandise, and people were sent falling into the river. It was
Londonís last Frost Fair.