Although we may enjoy some mild weather over the festive season, wintry conditions are still to come, although we are unlikely to experience anything as extreme as the Great Frost of 1683-4.
At that time, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 28cm. Whilst shipping was impeded, Londoners nevertheless took to the river for transport, trade and entertainment.
The first recorded Frost Fair was in 1608. In the previous century, King Henry VIII travelled by sleigh to Greenwich during the winter of 1536, and Queen Elizabeth 1 went shooting on the ice in the winter of 1564. John Evelyn described the winter of 1683-84 thus:
"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."
An Exact and Lively Mapp or Representation of Booths and all the varieties of showes and humours upon the Ice on the River of Thames by London … Anno Dm. MDCLXXXIII (1684), AN163816001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Great Britains Wonder: or, Londons Admiration (1684), AN501914001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.
The last Frost Fair was in February 1814. The climate had grown milder and the ice was melting too quickly. In 1831 London Bridge was demolished to be replaced by a new bridge with wider arches, which allowed the tide to flow more freely, and at various stages during the 19th century the river was embanked, making it less likely to freeze.
However, local blogger, Ian Visits, posts that the winter of 1854 was exceptionally cold, causing ice flows that seriously affected shipping – something which had been thought impossible since the embanking. The Illustrated London News reported "immense blocks of ice and frozen mud (in some instances seven and eight feet thick) entirely filling the distances between high and low-water mark, and giving the banks of the river the appearance of a monster polar region."
Illustrated London News, January 14th 1854.
Meanwhile, as recently as early 2009, this was the scene at Deptford Creek...
Photo: Nick Bertrand