Today (January 24) in London History – the Frost Fair on the Thames

The 1684 Frost Fair on the Thames, Blenheim Palace, a famous National Theatre production, the London Walks capo… January 24th connects them all.


What a winter that was. What a London that winter midwived.

On this day – January 24th – in 1684, John Evelyn described the scene vividly in his diary. Here’s what he wrote.

“The frost still continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was planted with booths in formal streets, as in a City, or continual fair. All sorts of Trades and shops furnished and full of commodities. Even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names Printed on the Thames.

This humour took so universally, that t’was estimated the Printer gained five pounds a day for printing, a line only, at six-pence a Name. Besides what he got by Ballads, etc. Coaches now plied from Westminster to the Temple. And from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets. Also on sleds, sliding with skates. There was likewise bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks and tipling, and lewder places…”

So there you have it, a small town on the Thames aka the famous Frost Fair on the Thames. Compliments of the Siberian winter weather conditions that pitched up in early December 1683 and lasted for two months – until February 5th, 1684. 

That souvenir – that printed ticket Evelyn describes – one of them has survived you can see it at the Museum of London. It’s survived because it’s got the King of England’s name on it. It’s dated January 31, 1684. So just a week after John Evelyn’s diary. Charles II is 53 years old. He’ll be dead in a year, almost to the day.

The names on the souvenir, printed-on-the-Thames card are:

Charles, King

James, Duke

Katharine, Queen

Mary, Duchess

Ann, Princess

George, Prince

Hans in Kelder

The most moving of those names is the last one, Hans in Kelder. It’s a Dutch expression. It means Hans in the cellar. In other words, an unborn child. A child in the womb.

The unborn child was almost certainly Anne’s. A daughter who would be stillborn 100 days later. She was the first of Ann’s 17 pregnancies. 17 pregnancies, twelve of which were stillbirths or miscarriages. Two more of the babies were born live but died within minutes. Another two didn’t survive infancy. That’s sixteen of her 17 pregnancies. The 17th, Prince William, didn’t survive childhood. He died at age 11. 

Queen Ann’s tragic, ill-fated pregnancies are very well known. What’s not so well known is that the story was much the same for her stepmother, Duchess Mary. She was pregnant 12 times between 1674 and 1692. There were two miscarriages and three stillbirths. Four more of her babies died in the first year of their life. One died when she was four. One died, of smallpox, at age 20. Just one of the twelve lived to old age. James Francis Edwards, the Prince of Wales, died when he was 75.

Mary would in fact miscarry an unnamed child in May of 1684. So it’s possible she was also pregnant that day on the frozen Thames. It’s poignant, that last name on the souvenir, Hans Kelder. Hans in the cellar. It’s warm, it’s hopeful, it’s good-natured, it’s affectionate. Poignant because the light-heartedness of that moment, that day would be cruelly dashed come May. Imagine the souvenir being in a drawer and Ann – or indeed Mary – coming across it perhaps a year or two later. I see them looking at it and the sorrow, the sadness instantly welling up. See them tearing up.

Anything else? Yes. Thanks to the souvenir we also know the name of the printer. At the bottom it reads:

London. Printed by G. Croom. On the ice, on the River of Thames, January 31. 1684.

Finally, let’s do a bit of meteorology, a bit of big picture history. In the interest of gaining some understanding about the Frost Fair.

For nearly six centuries – from about 1300 until 1870 – there was a mini Ice Age. It was called the Little Ice Age.

It was caused by the climate change of that era in combination with volcanic eruptions and very low sunspot activity.

Result: colder winters. 

To the mix you can add the fact that the Thames had not yet been embanked. It was much wider. And shallower. It flowed more slowly. Made it easier for the water to freeze. The flow was further impeded because of London Bridge. It was on nineteen arches, each of which was supported by small piers with projecting starlings or cutwaters – supporting bulwarks, really. The starlings broke up the flow of the river. In the winter they trapped ice and debris, turning the bridge effectively into a dam. The Thames seizing up – freezing up – upstream from the bridge was practically a matter of course in winters that were especially cold.

It’s a lost London, the frost fairs. We won’t see them again. Won’t see them because of global warming and because London’s bridges today do not act as dams and especially because the Thames was embanked and dredged back in the 19th century. It’s narrower today. It’s deeper. And it flows much fast. Mr. Ice can’t get a grip on it. 

Finally, here’s another connection. A personal connection.

Sir John Vanbrugh, the Restoration playwright and architect was born in London, on this day, January 24th, 1664.

What an accomplished individual Vanbrugh was. 

He designed two of the greatest feats of architecture in all of England – Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.

And he wrote two of the greatest comedies in the language: The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife.

Here’s the personal connection. Mary – Mary, my little English rose. Mary, the mother of my children. Mary, the London Walks capo. Mary, the award-winning guide. Mary, the classically trained dancer. Mary, the actress, was in a famous production of The Provoked Wife at the National Theatre.  It was directed by her favourite director, Peter Wood. And designed by her favourite theatrical designer Carl Toms. The two of them – Peter Wood and Carl Toms – hit on the idea of setting the play in 1684, the year of the Frost Fair, the year of the great freeze. It worked a treat. They set much of the action on the frozen Thames. With Restoration London in the background. It was wintery, sparkling – had a kind of diamond brilliance to it. Very beautiful. And of course it was so right thematically. The fit was perfect. The world of that play – Restoration London – is hard and cold and brilliant and beautiful.  And that was the London that you were seeing – that was the London Carl Toms designed. Great freeze London. Frozen Thames London. And of course the final genius stroke of the design was that those then-new rollerskates had just come into vogue. The ones with the rubber wheels. So they were silent. So Peter Wood got the company all roller-skated up. That was made possible – actors in period, 17th century costuming wearing late 20th-century roller skates – because designer Carl Toms came up with the idea of seeding the stage of the Lyttleton Theatre at the National with dry ice. The dry ice laid down a ground-level effect. A smoke-screen, as it were, that came up to just above ankle level or so on the actors. Which meant that those late 20th century wonders – roller skates on rubber wheels – wouldn’t be visible on actors who were otherwise wearing 17th-century costumes. And of course because the wheels were rubber, they didn’t make any sound. It was visually very attractive – Restoration men and women gliding on the ice on the Thames – against a stunning backdrop of Stuart London. And completely convincing because 1. – this bears repeating – thanks to the dry ice fog effect, you couldn’t see that these people were wearing rolling skates and 2. because of the rubber wheels, you couldn’t hear the skates. Well, as usual with Mary, because she trained as a dancer at the Royal Academy of dance, anything involving movement on the stage, anything physical was second nature to her. She loved it. Those were duck to the water moments for her. Which is what you’d expect: she was far and away the best athlete, the most physically accomplished member of the company. The only one who had a dancing, a ballet background. 

But it was tough going for a lot of the others in the company. 

And of course one night it happened. Nicky Henson – much loved Nicky Henson, how we miss him – went ass over teacups. Flat on his back. All of him invisible to the audience because he’s gone to ground under the dry ice fog effect. The only thing visible was his feet sticking up out of the dry ice fog screen. Feet that are wearing ultra-modern roller skates. And of course, as luck would have it, Nicky was delivering a long speech when he went down. Consummate professional that he was, he Soldiered on of course with the speech. Tries to get up, still speaking away. Skates go out from under him and down he goes again. And again. And then of course – weird the way this sort of thing happens – it’s almost as if Fate is a mischief-making God who’s decided to amuse himself – as luck would have it the next line Nicky had to deliver was, “What are we doing?”

Brought the house down. 

C’est tout for January 24th. From London, all the very best to one and all. 


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