Feb 042016
 

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Today is occasionally called King Frost Day in honor of the famous Frost Fair held in London in 1814. River Thames frost fairs were held on the tideway of the River Thames in London in a few winters between the 17th century and early 19th century, during the period known as the Little Ice Age, when the river froze over. During that time the British winter was more severe than now, and the river was wider and slower, and impeded by Old London Bridge.

Even at its peak, in the mid-17th century, the Thames freezing at London was less frequent than modern legend sometimes suggests, never exceeding about one year in ten except for four winters between 1649 and 1666. From 1400 to the removal of the medieval London Bridge in 1835, there were 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen over in London. Frost fairs were far more common elsewhere in Europe, for example in the Netherlands on frozen canals. The Thames freezes over more often upstream, beyond the reach of the tide, especially above the weirs, of which Teddington Lock is the lowest. The last great freeze of the higher Thames was in 1962-63.

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During the Great Frost of 1683–84, the worst frost recorded in England, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches (28 cm) in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries), causing severe problems for shipping and preventing the use of many harbors. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches; in Somerset, to more than four feet.

The Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century — King Henry VIII traveled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536. Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice frequently during 1564, to “shoot at marks”, and small boys played football on the ice.

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The first recorded frost fair was in 1608. The most celebrated frost fair occurred in the winter of 1683–84 and was described by John Evelyn:

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.

The frost fair of 1814 began on 1 February, and lasted four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. A printer named George Davis published a 124-page book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. The entire book was type-set and printed in Davis’ printing stall, which had been set up on the frozen Thames. This was the last frost fair. The climate was growing milder; old London Bridge was demolished in 1835 and replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, allowing the tide to flow more freely; and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, all of which made the river less likely to freeze.

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King Frost, who gives his name to this day is recorded in folk tales throughout Europe. Here is an English version of the tale printed by the Scottish folklorist/anthropologist, Andrew Lang:

There was once upon a time a peasant-woman who had a daughter and a step-daughter. The daughter had her own way in everything, and whatever she did was right in her mother’s eyes; but the poor step-daughter had a hard time. Let her do what she would, she was always blamed, and got small thanks for all the trouble she took; nothing was right, everything wrong; and yet, if the truth were known, the girl was worth her weight in gold–she was so unselfish and good-hearted. But her step-mother did not like her, and the poor girl’s days were spent in weeping; for it was impossible to live peacefully with the woman. The wicked shrew was determined to get rid of the girl by fair means or foul, and kept saying to her father: ‘Send her away, old man; send her away–anywhere so that my eyes sha’n’t be plagued any longer by the sight of her, or my ears tormented by the sound of her voice. Send her out into the fields, and let the cutting frost do for her.’

In vain did the poor old father weep and implore her pity; she was firm, and he dared not gainsay her. So he placed his daughter in a sledge, not even daring to give her a horse-cloth to keep herself warm with, and drove her out on to the bare, open fields, where he kissed her and left her, driving home as fast as he could, that he might not witness her miserable death.

Deserted by her father, the poor girl