Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winters Past

The Frozen Thames by Abraham Hondius

The frozen River Thames painted in 1677 The view is probably from Old Swan Stairs looking east with old London Bridge in the middle distance, and the tower of St Olave's Tooley Street just visible, and Southwark Cathedral on the right. Old London Bridge with its shops and houses and many supporting piers is no longer there, the shops and houses were dismantled around 1760 and the remainder was demolished in the 1830s when it was replaced by the New London Bridge. Even that is no longer there, it was sold to the American Robert P McCullogh in 1967, dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic to be rebuilt in Arizona! The London Bridge in the painting is the one referred to in the old nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is Falling Down'.

The news recently has been full of the usual media hype about coldest winter for 20 years etc etc and most of us have probably seen sufficient snow to last us a while but really what we have seen is nothing compared to winters in the past. We are all familiar with the Christmas card scenes of stage coaches battling through huge snowdrifts. Travelling in one of these coaches in winter must have been appalling, there was no heating unless you were fortunate (and wealthy!) enough to have a footwarmer and for those hardy souls who travelled outside there was no shelter either.

Getting stuck in snowdrifts was a very real possibility in those days when winters were very much colder than they are now. Can you imagine having to get out, probably already half frozen, and stand in the biting cold to lighten the load while the coachman and guards tried vainly to get the coach out of the snowdrifts?

I think we've all probably had a bit of a giggle at old pictures of men and women wearing nightcaps but if you'd been sleeping in the bedroom in the photo you'd have been very glad to wear one yourself. There is no glass in the windows of this well to do yeoman farmer's house, wooden shutters would be put over them and that would be it. The bed curtains were there for a reason not just to look pretty!

From the mid 1300s until well into the 1800s there was a Little Ice Age in Europe and the winters were very severe. On many occasions during this period the River Thames in London froze over completely. In 1536 Henry Vlll travelled by sleigh along the River Thames from Whitehall to Greenwich a distance of about 6 miles. His daughter Queen Elizabeth l skated and practiced archery on the frozen river in 1564 but things really started to get interesting in 1683 when the first Frost Fair was held. The diarist John Evelyn wrote
"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 stairs referred to are the steps leading down to the river where people boarded the boats which were used in much the same way as taxis are now. The Thames watermen were the London taxi drivers of their day.

Another anonymous eyewitness wrote
"On the 20th of December, 1683, a very violent frost began, which lasted to the 6th of February, in so great extremity, that the pools were frozen 18 inches thick at least, and the Thames was so frozen that a great street from the Temple to Southwark was built with shops, and all manner of things sold. Hackney coaches plied there as in the streets. There were also bull-baiting, and a great many shows and tricks to be seen. This day the frost broke up. In the morning I saw a coach and six horses driven from Whitehall almost to the bridge (London Bridge) yet by three o'clock that day, February the 6th, next to Southwark the ice was gone, so as boats did row to and fro, and the next day all the frost was gone. On Candlemas Day I went to Croydon market, and led my horse over the ice to the Horseferry from Westminster to Lambeth; as I came back I led him from Lambeth upon the middle of the Thames to Whitefriars' stairs, and so led him up by them. And this day an ox was roasted whole, over against Whitehall. King Charles and the Queen ate part of it."
It's worth clicking on the wonderful woodcut to see the detail, all the action is taking place on the frozen river and at the top is London Bridge.

This lovely little mug is a souvenir of the first Frost Fair and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is just two and a half inches high and has engraved on the base 'Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4'
In case you are wondering why it says 1683/4 it is because until the year 1752 the New Year officially began on 25th March although many people considered January 1st the first day of the New Year. Thus between Jan 1st and March 25th the date was always written using both years.

The Frost Fairs continued to be held whenever the Thames froze until the early 19th century. The last one was held in 1814 - an elephant was led across the river to demostrate the safety of the ice! In the mid 1800s the Thames Embankment was built which involved reclaiming the marshes and building out over the foreshore of the river. As a result the Thames became narrower and deeper. Old London Bridge, whose piers had slowed the flow of the river and enabled ice to build up, was demolished and the climate started to become warmer and these three things combined to bring an end to the Frost Fairs.

Apparently there is a plaque under Southwark Bridge with the following inscription

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done

My son and his family have landed safely in South Africa and will now be enjoying rather different temperatures to those we have here. We mustn't grumble though - things could be a lot worse!!


Von said...

Lovely post Rowan as always.Delightfully illustrated as always.
"Orlando"..Virginia Woolf, have you read it? Chapter One in particular.

Piecefulafternoon said...

Thank you for the lovely trip and the wonderful information.

Wanda said...

Very enjoyable post Rowan! I loved all the history. We really are privileged to live in a time of such conveniences...too numerous to even think of listing!

Glad your son and his family arrived safely in South Africa. Like you said, now you have good reason to visit there again!

Thimbleanna said...

Rowan! What an interesting post! That woodcut is just beautiful -- it's hard to imagine having so many people out on the river when it was frozen. Actually, it's hard to imagine people spending very much time outside in the winter, as it wasn't nearly as easy for them to come in and warm up as it is for us.

Thanks for such an informative post! (I wouldn't be surprised if school children who have to write papers use your site as a reference!)

Sal said...

A fabulous history lesson! I enjoyed reading it all.
Have a great weekend!

Rosie said...

I really enjoyed your post, Rowan. I love the way you have brought all the things that we've read about winters through the ages together to illustrate that indeed, today's weather is nothing in comparison to what people had to contend with and having far less comforts than we have now. The Frost Fair sounds a wonderful event and a good way of making the best of things:)

PG said...

Living in a tiny, damp stone cottage with limited heating (and none at all in our bedroom) we are still very much aware of why people of yore needed curtains and nightcaps - as we often sleep with woolly caps on, )especially recently), not to mention bedsocks and other ungainly garments. It's an excellent and very Green way of keeping warm! (But one which I suspect most people with central heating would be loathe to practise).

Diane said...

Weve been talking at home about when the Thames froze over and how cold that must have been. They have a stage coach in Kelham Island Museum - one that used to run from Sheffield to London. One of the tales about this is that it once got to London with its 3 occupants frozen to death in it!! xxxx

Gracie said...

You're right, we don't need to complain! Our winters are much more comfortable comparing with the past ones!
I'm glad your son and his family had a safe journey.
Gracie @

Roy said...

Really interesting Rowan.
I think that weather comes in cycles as history proves. We had a lot of snow in the winters of 1981 and 1963.
In 1947 when I was born it snowed in UK everyday all of January, February and halfway through March. The Doctor and the Nurse had to walk miles in the snow to bring me into the world.
Then there were massive floods everywhere.
Whats this Global warming all about anyway.???

hart said...

Your interesting post reminds me of "A Winter's Tale" by Mark Halprin (I don't have the book in front of me so the spelling may be a bit off.) Part of it is set on the frozen river. --Hart

MoominMamma said...

Wow! What a fountain of information here, really interesting and lovely images to accompany it!
I can remember reading a book as a little girl (I want to say it's Tom's Midnight Garden, but I may be getting muddled!) where some characters skated for miles and miles on the frozen river and being blown away that they could do that!

Lynda (Granny K) said...

Very interesting post Rowan!

Glad your son and family have arrived safely.

My snowdrops are showing about an inch now and there are a few slug-nibbled primrose flowers out, sheltered by a shrub - soon be Spring!

Pomona said...

I agree with Von - Virginia Woolf's description of the great freeze always comes to mind - and it was wonderfully evoked in the film of Orlando.

Pomona x

FireLight said...

Last Sunday was it is a balmy 51 F....and your most informative & chilly history of ye Oldy Woldy England is making me happy to have been in Alabama during the 20th & 21st centuries....brrrr!
great facts and so informative!

rallentanda said...

Well researched interesting
historical snippet...enjoyed it..thanks.

Granny Sue said...

Rowan, this is fascinating! I had no idea about the Frost Fairs. The cards of stagecoaches in the snow don't seem like cheery holiday greetings at all; how difficult it must have been. I wonder why they had those cold winters during that particular time period? Were volcanoes erupting or something like that?

Wonderful post. Thank you!

Derrick said...

Hello Rowan,

A paean to the Frost Fair! We may not have been able to compete with the Thames but you may have seen on TV, news of curlers in Lake of Mentieth playing on the frozen waters. The Clyde also partly froze as did the sea in the far north! I'm glad I could stay warm inside for the most part!

Hildred and Charles said...

What a very interesting post Rowan. I have been reading about Tudor times off and on recently, but didn't realize England had been in the grip of such cold and stormy winters during that time. I wonder what it was like in Canada during those early times of the Little Ice Age? We are truly lucky thatour hardiness isn't challenged in this way by Old Man Winter.

Karen said...

What an interesting post.
I've always had a fascination with the ice fairs on the Thames since reading a book many years ago.
That little glass mug is wonderful.

Thanks for sharing :)

laoi gaul~williams said...

thank you for such a wonderful post rowan~i adore the little cup...and that bed! oh my i would love one like that and even have my own sleeping hat!

Moncha said...

Hi Rowan,
thanks so much for your visits ; )
I love this post. Such beautiful illustrations. I love history !!!
Have a wonderful weekend.
I hop you haven't got too many plant losses ; )

liZZie said...

No one can bring to life history like you Rowan. Hope that all the changes in your circumstances are settling for you. Keep warm!

Eli said...

Our local lake Windermere also had frost fairs in the past and this year I was sure it would freeze over as temperatiures were well below zero for many weeks. But not a bit of it. No sign of the slightest patch of ice anywhere. It must have been a lot colder in days gone by.