The river Thames: Part 3 of 3

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. Public Domain.


Walter Thornbury, 'The river Thames: Part 3 of 3', in Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878) pp. 311-322. British History Online [accessed 30 May 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "The river Thames: Part 3 of 3", in Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878) 311-322. British History Online, accessed May 30, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "The river Thames: Part 3 of 3", Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878). 311-322. British History Online. Web. 30 May 2024,

In this section


THE RIVER THAMES (continued).

"Cœlo gratissimus amnis."—Virgil.

Remarkable Frosts on the Thames—Frost Fair in 1683—Rhyming Description of "Blanket Fair."—Evelyn's Account of the Fair—Printing on the Ice—Charles II.'s Partiality to Frost Fair—The River again frozen over in 1709, 1715, 1739, 1767, 1788, and 1814—Curious Handbills printed on the Ice—Singular Feats performed on the Thames—Captain Boyton's Life-preserving Dress—Scott, the American Diver—Rise and Fall of the Tide—Projected Improvements for the Bed of the River.

Happily in our latitude winter is not often so severe as to "bind in frosty chains" the river which runs through the heart of our metropolis; but still, if the old annalists and historians are to be believed, the Thames from time to time has been frozen into ice-fields, and its surface has been made the scene of frost-fairs. To mention a few instances: we are told that in the reign of Stephen, in the year 1150, "after a very wet summer there was in December so great a frost that horses and carriages crossed it upon the ice as safely as upon the dry ground, and that the frost lasted till the following month of March." Again we read that in 1281 the Thames was frozen over, and that on the breaking up of the ice five of the arches of old London Bridge were carried away. "In 1434," says Northouck, "the Thames was so strongly frozen over, that merchandise and provisions brought into the mouth of the river were obliged to be unladen, and brought by land to the city." In 1515, too, carriages passed over on the ice from Lambeth to Westminster. At this time it is said the frost and snow were so severe that five arches of London Bridge were "borne downe and carried away with the streame." On the 21st of December, 1564, during the prevalence of a hard frost, we read of diversions on the Thames, some playing at football, and others "shooting at marks." The courtiers from the palace at Whitehall mixed with the citizens, and tradition reports that Queen Elizabeth herself walked upon the ice. On the night of the 3rd of January following, however, it began to thaw, and on the 5th there was no ice to be seen on the river. In 1620 a great frost enabled the Londoners to carry on all manner of sports and trades upon the river.


In a curious volume of London ballads and broadsides in the British Museum is one entitled "Great Britain's Wonder, or London's Admiration," being "a true representation of a prodigious frost which began about the beginning of December, 1683, and continued till the fourth day of February following. It held on the Thames with such violence that men and beasts, coaches and carts, went as frequently thereon as boats were wont to pass before. There was also" (continues the writer) "a street of booths built from the Temple to Southwark, where were sold all sorts of goods imaginable, namely, cloaths, plate, earthenware, meat, drink, brandy, tobacco, and a hundred sorts of commodities not here inserted: it being the wonder of this present age and a great consternation to all the spectators." The rude cut beneath the title shows the Middlesex shore, taken from the centre of the river, from Arundel House to the eastern end of the Temple; giving a view of Essex Buildings with its ugly round-headed arch, and the three groups of stairs belonging to Arundel House, Essex House, and the Temple. The street of booths holds out all sorts of signs, just like the houses in the Strand. There are men and boys making slides, skating, and sledging in all directions; some of the sledges are of the ordinary type, like the low brewer's dray drawn by heavy horses; some are more artistic, made up like gondolas; some are apparently genuine boats, with sails; in two places are carriages drawn by a single horse, and just opposite the Temple Stairs a bull is being baited. Gallants in the fashionable dresses of the day are promenading, with wigs and swords; while the ladies, true to the instinct of their sex, are "shopping" briskly. In a corner are five men playing at skittles; one of them is smoking a pipe. The doggerel verses below the cut tell how
"The Thames is now both fair and market too,
Where many thousands daily do resort.
* * * * *
There you may see the coaches swiftly run,
As if beneath the ice were waters none,
And shoals of people everywhere there be,
Just like the herrings in the brackish sea.
And there the quaking watermen will stand ye,
'Kind master, drink you beer, or ale, or brandy;
Walk in, kind sir, this booth it is the chief,
We'll entertain you with a slice of beef.'
Another cries, 'Here, master, they but scoff ye;
Here is a dish of famous new-made coffee.'
* * * * *
There you may also this hard frosty winter
See on the rocky ice a Working-Printer,
Who hopes by his own art to reap some gain
Which he perchance does think he may obtain.
Here also is a lottery, music too,
Yea, a cheating, drunken, lewd, and debauch'd crew;
Hot codlins, pancakes, ducks, and goose, and sack,
Rabbit, capon, hen, turkey, and a wooden jack.
* * * * *
There on a sign you may most plainly see't,
Here's the first tavern built in Freezeland Street.
There is bull-baiting and bear-baiting too.
* * * * *
There roasted was a great and well-fed ox
And there with dogs hunted the common fox."


Another rough print in the same collection, taken from almost the very same point of view, entitled "A True Description of Blanket Fair upon the River Thames in the Time of the Great Frost, in the Year of our Lord 1683," gives a representation of the ox being roasted, and also of the "hunting the fox," Reynard being pursued by two men with clubs and five queer-looking dogs: in this one of the carriages has two horses; the verses are just a shade above those already quoted, but running in the same descriptive vein, as will be seen from the following specimen:—
"The art of printing there was to be seen,
Which in no former age had ever been;
And goldsmiths' shops well furnished with plate;
But they must dearly pay for 't that would ha' it.
And coffee-houses in great numbers were
Scattered about in this cold-freezing fair.
There might you sit down by a char-cole fire
And for your money have your heart's desire,
A dish of coffee, chocolate, or tea:
Could man desire more furnished to be?"

In the same collection is a ballad, of a few weeks' later date, "The Thames uncas'd; or, the Waterman's Song upon the Thaw;" the last stanza runs thus:—
"Meantime, if ought of honour you've got,
Let the printers have their due,
Who printed your names on the river Thames,
While their hands with the cold look'd blue;
There's mine, there's thine, will for ages shine,
Now the Thames again does flow;
Then let's gang hence, to our boats' commerce,
For the frost is over now."

In another ballad, printed and sold on the ice about this time, entitled "Blanket Fair, or History of Temple Street, being a Relation of the Merry Pranks played on the River Thames during the Great Frost," we read—
"I'll tell you a story as true as 'tis rare,
Of a river turn'd into a Bartlemy Fair.
Since old Christmas last,
There has bin such a frost,
That the Thames has by half the whole nation bin crost.
O scullers! I pity your fate of extreams,
Each landman is now become free of the Thames."

On the 1st of January, 1684, John Evelyn tells us that whole streets of booths were set out on the Thames, and that he crossed the river on the ice on foot upon the 9th in order to dine with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth, and again, in his coach, from Lambeth to the Horseferry at Millbank, upon the 5th of February. On the 6th he observes that the ice had "now become so thick as to beare not onely streetes of boothes in which they roasted meate, and had divers shops of wares quite acrosse as in a towne, but coaches, carts, and horses passed over. At this time there was a footpassage quite over the river, from Lambeth-stairs to the Horse-ferry at Westminster; and hackney coaches began to carry fares from Somerset House and the Temple to Southwark. On January 23rd, the first day of Hilary Term, they were regularly employed in hire, where the watermen were accustomed to be found. In this arrangement the means of conveyance only, and not the ordinary way, was altered; since the use of boats to Westminster was almost universal at the period, as the rough paving of the streets rendered riding through them in coaches very uneasy." By the 16th the number of persons keeping shops on the ice had so greatly increased that Evelyn says, "the Thames was filled with people and tents selling all sorts of wares as in the City;" and by the 24th the varieties and festivities of a fair appear to have been completely established. "The frost," he states, "continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with boothes in formal streets, all sorts of trades, and shops furnish'd and full of commodities, even to a printing presse, where the people and ladys tooke a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and yeare set down, when printed on the Thames. This humour took so universally, that 'twas estimated the printer gained about £5 a day for printing a line onely at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, &c." In a poem commemorative of this frost, published at the time, there occurs the following passage relating to the printers; the concluding four lines of which have been used in some of the verses produced at every frost fair, from that in 1684 to the last in 1814:—
"—To the Print-house go,
Where men the Art of Printing seem to know:
Where, for a Teaster, you may have your name
Printed, hereafter for to shew the same;
And sure, in former ages, ne'er was found
A Press to Print where men so oft were drown'd!" (fn. 1)

Evelyn also quaintly tells us how that "coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires, to and fro, as in the streetes: sleds [sledges], sliding with skeetes [skates], a bullbaiting, horse and coach races, puppet-plays and interludes, cookes, tippling, and other lewd places; so that it seem'd to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water." This traffic and festivity were continued until February 5th, when the same authority states that "it began to thaw, but froze again. My coach crossed from Lambeth to the horse-ferry at Millbank, Westminster. The booths were almost taken downe; but there was first a map or land skip cut in copper, representing all the manner of the camp, and the several actions, sports and pastimes thereon, in memory of so signal a frost. . . . London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the aire hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so fill'd with this fuliginous steame of the sea-coale, that hardly could one see across the streetes; and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breath, so as no one could scarcely breathe. There was no water to be had from the pipes and engines; nor could the brewers and divers other tradesmen work; and every moment was full of disastrous accidents." It was during the continuance of this fair that Evelyn saw a "human salamander," when he dined at Sir Stephen Fox's, and "after dinner came a fellow who ate live charcoal, glowingly ignited, quenching them in his mouth, and then champing and swallowing them down. There was also a dog which," Evelyn quaintly remarks, "seemed to do many rational actions."

The very curious original drawing of this fair, engraven on a reduced scale in Smith's "Antiquities of London," represents the Thames, looking from the western side of the Temple Stairs, appearing on the left, towards London Bridge, which is faintly shown in the view at the back with all the various buildings standing upon it. "The time when the view was taken," says the author of that work, "was the day previous to the first thaw, as the original is dated in a contemporaneous hand at the top of the right-hand corner, 'Munday, February the 4th, 1683–4.' The drawing consists of a spirited though unfinished sketch, on stout and coarse paper in pencil, slightly shaded with Indian ink; which was the well-known style of an artist of the seventeenth century, peculiarly eminent for his views, namely, Thomas Wyck—usually called Old Wyck, to distinguish him from his son John—who spent the greater part of his life in England. This sketch is preserved in the 'Illustrated Pennant's London,' formerly belonging to Mr. John Charles Crowle, in the Print Room of the British Museum. On the right of the view is an oblique prospect of the double line of tents which extended across the centre of the river, called at the time Temple Street, consisting of taverns, toy shops, &c., which were generally distinguished by some title or sign, as the 'Duke of York's Coffee-house,' 'the Tory booth,' 'the booth with a phenix on it, and insured to last as long as the foundation stands,' 'the Half-way House,' 'the Bear Gardenshire Booth,' 'the Roast Beef Booth,' 'the Music Booth,' 'the Printing Booth,' 'the Lottery Booth,' and 'the Horn Tavern Booth,' which is indicated about the centre of the view by the antlers of a stag raised above it. On the outside of this street were pursued the various sports of the fair, some of which are also shown in the annexed plate; but in the nearer and larger figures introduced in the pictorial map mentioned by Evelyn, there appear extensive circles of spectators, surrounding a bull-baiting, and the rapid revolution of a whirling-chair or car, drawn by several men by a long rope fastened to a stake, fixed in the ice. Large boats covered with tilts, capable of containing a considerable number of passengers, and decorated with flags and streamers, are represented as being used for sledges, some of them being drawn by horses, and others by watermen, in want of their usual employment. Another sort of boat was mounted on wheels, and one vessel called the 'Drum-boat' was distinguished by a drummer placed at the prow. The pastimes of throwing at a cock, sliding and skating, roasting an ox, foot-ball, skittles, pigeon-holes, cups and balls, &c., are represented in a large print as being carried on in various parts of the river; whilst a slidinghutch propelled by a stick, a chariot moved by a screw, and stately coaches, filled with visitors, appear to be rapidly moving in various directions, and sledges with coals and wood are passing between the London and Southwark shores. The gardens of the Temple and the river itself are both filled in the large plate with numerous spectators, as they are also shown in the present view; but, in addition to its originality, the drawing now engraven is, perhaps, more pictorially interesting than the print, from the prospect being considerably more spacious and carefully executed; as it exhibits the whole line of the Bankside to St. Saviour's Church, with the Tower, the Monument, finished in 1677, the Windmill near Queenhythe, the new Bow Church, and some others of the new churches, the vacant site and ruins of Bridewell Palace, and Old London Bridge."

With our copy of this interesting drawing is introduced another equally curious relic of the same Frost Fair, from the collection of Henry Hyde, second Earl of Clarendon, and formerly in the collection of Mr. William Upcott. It consists of an impression of the specimen of printing on the ice, executed for King Charles II. and the Royal Family who visited the fair with him. The names upon the paper are Charles, King; James, Duke (of York, his brother, subsequently King James II.); Katherine, Queen (Catharine, Infanta of Portugal, Queen of Charles II.); Mary, Duchess (Mary d'Este, sister of Francis, Duke of Modena, the second duchess of James); Anne, princess (the second daughter of the Duke of York, afterwards Queen Anne); George, prince (the princess's husband, George of Denmark). The concluding name, "Hans in Kelder," was no doubt dictated by the humour of the king; it literally signifies "Jack in the Cellar," and alludes to the interesting situation of the Princess Anne. The card, which was printed with a type border, was worded as follows:—

Charles, King. Mary, Dutchess.
Katherine, Queen. Anne, Princess.
James, Duke. George, Prince.
Hans in Kelder.
London: Printed by G. Groom, on the Ice, on the River of Thames, January 31, 1684.

Charles II. seems to have been very partial to "Frost Fair." He is reported to have joined in a fox-hunt on the Thames; and a French traveller present in London at the time, states, in a small volume printed at Paris, that the king on one occasion passed a whole night upon the ice.

A contemporaneous notice of Frost Fair contained in a diary cited in The Gentleman's Magazine for 1814, states that on February 2nd, in 1684, an ox was roasted whole over against Whitehall, and that King Charles and the Queen ate a part of it. His Majesty appears to have taken much pleasure in viewing the lively scene from his palace, since in the poem also printed upon the ice, entitled "Thamesis's Advice to the Painter," there occur the following lines:—
"Then draw the king, who on his leads doth stray
To view the throng as on a Lord Mayor's day,
And thus unto his nobles pleased to say:
'With these men on this ice I'd undertake
To cause the Turk all Europe to forsake;
An army of these men, arm'd and complete,
Would soon the Turk in Christendom defeat.'"

The print of Frost Fair, referred to in the diary of Evelyn, is entitled "An Exact and Lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the varieties of Showes and Humours upon the Ice on the River of Thames by London, during that memorable Frost, in the 35th Yeare of the Reigne of His Sacred Majesty King Charles the Second, Anno Dm. MDCLXXXIII., with an Alphabetical Explanation of the most remarkable figures." It consists of a whole sheet copper-plate, the prospect being represented horizontally from the Temple Stairs and Bankside to London Bridge. In an oval cartouche at the top of the view, within the frame of the print, appears the title; and on the outside, below, are the alphabetical references with the words, "Printed and sold by William Warter, Stationer, at the signe of the Talbott under the Mitre Tavern in Fleete Street, London." An impression of this plate will be found in the Royal Collection of Topographical Prints and Drawings given by George IV. to the British Museum, vol. xxvii., art. 39. There is also a variation of the same engraving in the City Library at Guildhall, divided with common ink into compartments as if intended to be used as cards, and numbered in the margin in type with Roman numerals, in three series of ten each and two extra. A descriptive list of the other prints, printed papers, and tracts relating to the Frost Fair of 1683–1684, will be found in Wilkinson's "Londina Illustrata," vol. i., whence much of the preceding notices has been derived; another list is contained in the catalogue of the Sutherland collection of Prints and Drawings inserted as illustrations in Lord Clarendon's "Life" and "History of the Rebellion," and Burnet's "History of his Own Times."

Again the Duke of York (James II.) writes to his son-in-law—and destined supplanter—William of Orange, under date January 4, 1683–4:—"The weather is so very sharp and the frost so great that the river here is quite frozen over, so that for these three days past people have gone over it in several places, and many booths are built on it between Lambeth and Westminster, where they roast meat and sell drink." During the continuance of the frost at this time, which lasted until the 4th of February, about forty coaches plied on the Thames as on dry land, and the scene enacted on the glassy surface of the river in its course through London was known as "Frost" or "Blanket" fair.

In 1709 the Thames was again frozen over, but the frost was not sufficiently permanent to allow of a repetition of Frost Fair, although several persons crossed over on the ice.

In the winter of 1715–16 the frost was again so intensely severe that the river Thames was frozen over during almost the space of three months. Booths were erected on the congealed river for the sale of all kinds of commodities, and all the fun of the fair of 1684 was revived. On the 19th of January, 1716, two large oxen were roasted whole on the ice; the vast quantities of snow which had fallen at different times in the season rendered the City almost impassable. The Prince of Wales was attracted to the fair, and a newspaper of the day intimates that the theatres were almost deserted.

The winter of the year 1739, generally known as "the hard winter," was a season of distress to the labouring part of the public. A most severe frost began on Christmas Day, and continued till the ensuing February. Its severity was beyond precedent, and the effect produced was long felt. Many persons who had lived in Hudson's Bay territory declared that they had never known it colder in that frozen region than it was in England during that winter. The Thames was soon covered with floating rocks and shoals of ice; and when these were fixed, the river represented a snowy field rising in many places in hillocks and huge heaps of icebergs, and many artists seized the opportunity of making sketches of the strange scene thus presented "above bridge." The river Thames was so solidly frozen that great numbers of people dwelt upon it in tents, and a variety of booths was erected on it for the entertainment of the populace. A few days after it began there arose a very high wind, which did considerable damage to the shipping, that happened at that time to be very numerous. Several vessels laden with corn, others with coals, &c., were sunk by the ice; many had holes beat in their sides by falling on their anchors: several lighters and boats were confined under the ice; in short, a more dismal scene presented itself on the river Thames than had ever been beheld by the oldest man living. The damage done between the Medway and London Bridge was computed at £100,000, and besides many persons lost their lives from the severity of the weather. The watermen and fishermen were entirely disabled from earning their livelihood, as were the lower classes of labourers from their employment in the open air; and the calamity was rendered more severe by coals and other necessaries being advanced in their price in proportion to the intenseness and continuance of the frost. Happily for the poor, the hand of charity was liberally extended; great benefactions were given by persons of opulent fortunes, and considerable collections were made in most of the parishes in London; and from this benevolent assistance many wretched families were preserved that otherwise must have inevitably perished. During the nine weeks' continuance of the frost coaches plied upon the Thames, and festivities and diversions of all kinds were enjoyed upon the ice. Little or no novelty, however, appears to have been introduced into the amusements of this fair, and the same things were done as on the former occasion, even to the roasting of the regulation ox on the ice, a feat which appears to have been accomplished with some little ceremony, for we read that "Mr. Hodgeson, a butcher of St. James's Market, claimed the privilege of knocking down the beast as a right inherent in his family, his father having knocked down the ox roasted in the river in 1684, as he himself did that roasted in 1715 near Hungerford Stairs." The beast was fixed to a stake in the open market, and Mr. Hodgeson "came dressed in a rich laced cambric apron, a silver steel, and a hat and feathers, to perform the office." Printing-booths were again set up on the ice, and at one of these establishments, bearing the sign of the "Golden King's Head," was sold "An Account of the principal Frosts for above a Hundred Years," with a frontispiece of London Bridge at the time of the frost, which purported to have been printed on the ice. Another popular publication was "The Humble Petition of the River Thames to the Venerable Sages of Westminster Hall," in which we read that "ministers of punishment have treated him with the utmost contempt and insolence, have even made a publick shew of him, have call'd in heaps of ragamuffins to trample upon him, and, what is worst of all, have forced a numerous family, which he used to provide for, to beg in the streets." In this fair "Doll, the Pippin Woman," alluded to in Gray's "Trivia," lost her life:—
"Doll every day had walk'd these treacherous reads;
Her neck grew warp'd beneath autumnal loads
Of various fruit: she now a basket bore;
That head, alas! shall basket bear no more.
* * * * *
The crackling crystal yields, she smiles, she dies;
Her head chopt off, from her lost shoulders flies;
'Pippins,' she cries, but Death her voice confounds;
And pip, pip, pip, along the ice resounds."

Towards the end of December, 1767, a violent frost began, which continued to increase, and was very severe till the 16th of January following. During its continuance, the distresses of the poor in town and country were truly pitiable. Fuel and other necessaries of life were remarkably dear: the river Thames was frozen so hard, that the navigation was entirely stopped both above and below the bridge: many persons perished in boats and other craft that were jammed in by the ice; and the wherries in the river were wholly unemployed. Many accidents happened in the cities of London and Westminster, and several people perished by the cold in the streets. The severity of the frost was equally felt in the country; many persons were found dead in the snow, the roads were rendered quite impassable, and it was at the imminent hazard of their lives, that the coachmen and mail-drivers performed their journeys. This was followed by a violent hurricane, by which damage was sustained, in the City and its neighbourhood, to the amount of £50,000.

Again there was a very severe frost in 1777–8, and the Thames was frozen over at Kingston. In the winter of 1788–9 the Thames was again frozen over, and a bear-hunt is stated to have taken place on the ice off Rotherhithe. During this frost the fair on the ice occupied a considerably larger space than on any previous occasion, extending as it did from Shadwell to Putney; it included, among other amusements, a travelling menagerie of beasts which moved about from place to place.

At the beginning of January, 1811, a very severe frost set in. On the 8th, the Thames was so much frozen, that there was only a narrow channel in the centre free from ice. The banks of the river were so firmly set with ice and snow that people could walk upon it from Battersea Bridge to Hungerford Stairs.

In Hughson's "London" we read that "the year 1814 began with an immense fog which lasted about a week, during which a number of accidents occurred. On the 8th of January, however, the fog disappeared, in consequence of a change of wind; and a frost then set in, almost as unexampled in its duration and severity as the fog had been for its density. The frost continued with little intermission till the 20th of March. On the 31st of January several persons walked across the Thames between London and Blackfriars Bridges; and on the 3rd of February a sheep was roasted on the ice on the same spot, and the whole space between the two bridges had become a complete fair. Thousands of persons were seen moving in all directions; about thirty booths were erected for the sale of porter, spirits, &c., as well as for skittles, dancing, and other diversions. Several printers had presses on the ice, and pulled off various impressions, for which they found a very rapid sale. So long a continuance of cold weather has seldom been experienced in our climate."

Cyrus Redding records in his "Fifty Years' Recollections" having spent this "bitter" winter in London, and having "walked from Blackfriars to London Bridge on the ice, dirty, and impure, and lumpy as it was." He describes it as "a drearylooking scene." He adds, however, "The serpentine skaters, the promenading, the streets piled up with snow and ice, and the well and ill-clad spectators, as they were then combined, were amusing novelties."


A cotemporary account states, with minute precision, that on the morning of Sunday, the 30th of January, 1814, huge masses of ice quite blocked up the Thames between London and Blackfriars Bridges, and that no less than seventy persons walked across from Queenhithe to the opposite shore. On the same night the frost so welded the vast mass together into one compact field as to render it almost immovable by the tide. On Tuesday the river presented a solid surface from Blackfriars Bridge to some distance below Three Crane Stairs, and "thousands perambulated the rugged plain, whereon a variety of amusements was provided. Among the more curious of these," continues the account, "was the ceremony of roasting a small sheep: for a view of this extraordinary spectacle sixpence was demanded and willingly paid. The delicate meat, when done, was sold at a shilling a slice, and termed 'Lapland mutton.' There were set up a great number of booths, ornamented with streamers, flags, and signs, and within them was a plentiful supply of favourite luxuries. Near Blackfriars Bridge, however, the ice was not equally secure; for a plumber, named Davies, having imprudently ventured to cross with some lead in his hands, sank between two masses, and was seen no more. Two young women, too, nearly shared the same fate, but they were rescued from their perilous situation by the prompt efforts of some of the Thames watermen. From the solid obstruction the tide did not appear to ebb for some days more than half the usual mark. On Wednesday, the 2nd of February, the sports were repeated, and the Thames presented a complete 'frost fair' for a few days. The grand 'mall' or walk now extended, not as on former occasions across the river, but down the centre from Blackfriars to London Bridge; this was named the 'City Road,' and was lined on both sides by booths of all descriptions. Eight or ten printing-presses were erected, and numerous cards and broadsides were printed on the ice in commemoration of 'the great frost.' Some of these frost-fair typographers showed considerable taste in their handy work. At one of the presses was hoisted an orange-coloured standard, with the watch-word 'Orange Boven' in large letters, in allusion to the recent restoration of the Stadtholder to the Government of Holland, which had been for several years under the dominion of the French. From this press, too, were issued such papers as this:—
'Amidst the arts which on the Thames appear,
To tell the wonders of this icy year,
Printing demands first place, which at one view
Erects a monument of That and You.'
Another paper runs thus:—
'You that walk here and do design to tell
Your children's children what this year befell,
Come buy this print, and it will then be seen
That such a year as this hath seldom been.'"


A handbill printed and sold on the ice contains the following notice:—"Whereas, you, J. Frost, have by force and violence taken possession of the River Thames, I hereby give you warning to quit immediately.—A. Thaw." Copies of the Lord's Prayer and several other pieces, both sacred and profane, were "worked off" at these icy printingpresses, and found many willing purchasers at high prices. On Thursday the number of booths and stalls, and also that of the visitors, was largely increased. Swings, book-stalls, skittles, dancing booths, merry-go-rounds, sliding barges, and all the other usual appendages of Greenwich and Bartlemy Fairs, now appeared in scores. The ice seemed to be a solid rock, and presented a truly picturesque appearance. Friday, the 4th, brought a fresh accession of booths and of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish that would have long remained unsold on the land was raked up from cellars and garrets and sold at double and treble its value. Books and toys labelled with the words "bought on the Thames" found purchasers on every side. The Thames watermen, who, it might have been supposed, would have been ruined by the weather, their "occupation gone," reaped a considerable harvest; for every person was made to pay a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted into the precincts of "Frost Fair;" and some douceur was expected besides on quitting the scene. Indeed, some of them were said to have made as much in coppers as six pounds a day! On this afternoon, however, there occurred an incident which warned the most venturesome that the ice was not so solid, or at all events so safe, as it appeared; for three persons, a man and two lads, being on a piece of ice just above London Bridge, the latter suddenly became detached from the main body, and was carried by the tide through one of the arches. They laid themselves down at full length for safety, and happily were rescued by some Billingsgate fishermen. On the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday "Frost Fair" was in full favour, and the grand walk between Blackfriars and London Bridges was crowded till after nightfall. Saturday, the 5th, augured but badly for the continuance of the "Frost Fair," for the wind veered round to the south, and there was a slight fall of snow and sleet. The visitors, however, were not to be deterred by trifles. Thousands again ventured on the surface, and still there was as much life and bustle as before on the frozen element; the footpath down the middle of the river was hard and secure, and amongst the crowd were some donkeys, which brought in to their owners considerable profit, as a donkey ride on the ice was charged a shilling. These caused much merriment, as may very easily be supposed. Towards the evening the crowd thinned very much, for the rain began to fall and the ice to crack, threatening to float away and carry off booths, donkeys, printing-presses, and all the amusements of the last few days, to the no small dismay of stall-keepers, shop-keepers, typographers, and (unlicensed) publicans. The thaw, however, advanced rapidly, more rapidly indeed than heedlessness and indiscretion retreated. Two young men ventured on the ice above Blackfriars Bridge, notwithstanding the warnings of the watermen; the mass on which they stood was carried away, and they perished. On Sunday morning, February 6th, at an early hour the tide began to flow, and the thaw assisted the rising tide to break up the ice-field. On Monday, the thaw continuing, immense fragments of ice were in motion, floating up and down according to the set of the tide, carrying, of course, many of the barges and lighters from their moorings above bridge, and drifting them into positions where they speedily became wrecks and sunk. In two or three days more the frozen element again became fluid, and old Father Thames, under the bright rays of the sun, relaxed his "grim-visaged front," and very soon looked as cheerful and as busy as ever.

There can be little doubt, if reliance can be placed on the calculations of civil engineers, that the Thames would have been frozen over in the winter of 1838, and again in 1853, if it had not been for the removal of old London Bridge, the narrow arches of which prevented the masses of ice from escaping seaward. The removal of this impediment has much increased what is called the "scour" of the river; and it is highly improbable that, however protracted, the frost will be able to coagulate the ice into one mass as it did, at all events, in the winters of 1564, 1608, 1634, 1683, 1715, 1739, 1789, and (as we have said above) in 1813–14.

The Thames "between bridges" in its normal and unfrozen state has been the scene of some curious experiments, wagers, &c. For instance, Mr. John Timbs, in his "Curiosities of London," states that in July, 1776, a man safely crossed the Thames in a butcher's tray from Somerset House for a wager; upon which feat depended £14,000. Again, towards the latter portion of his life, M. Lunardi, the first successful aëronaut in London, made several excursions on the Thames in a sort of tin life-buoy, which he named a waterballoon. This invention, however, has perhaps been improved on by Captain Paul Boyton, who, in the early part of the present year of grace 1875, might be seen making his way up and down the river between Westminster Bridge and Greenwich in a very novel manner. Dressed in an oil-skin or india-rubber suit of clothes, of sufficient capacity to allow of its being inflated, the captain could lie at full length on the surface of the water, or, placing himself partly in a sitting posture, propel himself comfortably along (canoe fashion) by means of a short paddle. Captain Boyton belongs to an American organisation, entitled the "Camden and Atlantic Life Guards." Its mission is to save, not to slay; and Captain Boyton boasts that, armoured in the uniform of his invention, he has rescued seventy-one persons from the waves off the coast of New Jersey. The waterproof suit, which weighs about fifteen pounds, is in five separate parts—that is to say, head, breast, back, and two legs; and when all are inflated, it is capable of sustaining four men in addition to the wearer.

About the year 1841 an American diver, named Scott, created some sensation by leaping from the parapet of Southwark and Waterloo Bridges into the river beneath, which was nearly full of floating ice, but the poor fellow shortly afterwards killed himself by hanging from a scaffold upon the latter bridge. Now and then a theatrical clown navigates the river in a washing-tub drawn by geese; and occasionally there are wonderful stories of sharks, porpoises, and other strange things—all "very like a whale"—leaving their ocean sire and disporting themselves "above bridge."

Sometimes, by a freak of nature, the tide in the Thames falls very low; and by a very high wind from the south-west the river is occasionally blown out—or, in other words, the bed is left nearly dry from shore to shore—so that many an adventurous or frolicsome wight has been known to "walk across the Thames." As a rule, however, the tide in the Thames is generally regular in its ebb and flow, though a very strong wind from the northwest, if it comes at spring-tides, causes the river to rise higher on account of the volume of water which it forces up from the Northern Ocean. It is perhaps worthy of note that on Friday, March 20, 1874, the tide in the Thames rose 4 feet 3½ inches above Trinity mark, and inundated the south bank of the river along Lambeth, Bankside, and Rotherhithe, and even as far as Woolwich, causing a considerable loss of property and at least one life.

Hunter in his "History of London" records the fact that in February, 1762, the tide overflowed the banks to such an extent that casks and other articles of merchandise were swept away from the wharves and quays, and the prison-yard of the Borough compter was some inches under water, and in the next month at spring-tide, the water rushed in a body into Westminster Hall. The same thing seems to have happened in the following September, when the water is said to have risen twelve feet perpendicular in five hours. The worst effects of this high tide, it appears, were felt below bridge; the cattle being carried away—so Hunter says—in the marshes about Stratford and Bow. "From the nearest computation, 50,000 pigs were supposed to have been lost. Several persons lost their lives on the high road, and many machines (i.e. carriages and wagons) were overturned. The houses from Bow Bridge to Stratford were all overflowed, and the inhabitants obliged to get out of their windows." The same thing appears to have recurred in the February of the following year, and again in September, 1764. He also tells us the tide in the Thames ebbed and flowed, in 1661, three times within seven hours, its waters being thrown into the most violent agitation.

In order to maintain the flow and "scour" of the Thames, an Act of Common Council was passed in 1538 to enforce an early statute of Henry VIII. forbidding persons to throw solid matter or refuse into the river, but allowing them to scoop out and carry away the shelves of sand, gravel, &c., as ballast, or for any other purpose, and compelling the owners to keep the banks on either side in a fit and proper state of repair. From time to time, we may here remark, a variety of projects have been put forward having for their immediate object the improvement of the bed and course of the river both below and above London Bridge, and more than once it has been seriously proposed to dig an entirely new course, in a direct line from Lambeth to Rotherhithe; but though these plans were canvassed and agitated from time to time, the vested interests which opposed them have succeeded in carrying the day, and for a brief period the subject has fallen through, only to be again and again brought forward and as often disposed of in a similar manner.


  • 1. "Thamesis's Advice to the Painter from her Frigid Zone; or, Wonders on the Water." London: Printed by G. Croom, on the River of Thames. Small folio half-sheet, 74 lines.