Behold the liquid Thames now frozen o’er
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groat
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
These lines were written in the early 19th Century by a Southwark sculptor called Richard Kindersley. From the late Middle Ages until this time, the Thames regularly froze over during the winter. There are two reasons for this, one climactic and one topographical. The 14th to 18th Centuries are known as the Little Ice Age, when winters tended to be much more severe than subsequently. Most of the London Thames was unembanked, hence the river was both shallower and slower. Exacerbating this, Old London Bridge had very narrow arches, creating a dam effect: once the first chunks of ice floating downriver wedged themselves between the bridge’s piers, the river soon froze solid. However, we know that the Thames must sometimes have frozen downstream of the bridge too, because it is recorded that Henry VIII travelled to Greenwich over the ice.
Old London Bridge was pulled down in 1831 and replaced by a structure with fewer and much wider spans; by the 1860s, the London Thames was fully embanked.
From the early 17th to the early 19th Century, frost fairs were held on the frozen Thames. These were festivals which involved winter games, markets, dancing and revelling. The first “official” frost fair took place in 1608 and these continued until 1814, the last time the London Thames froze over. However it is known that Elizabeth I enjoyed attending games and revels on the frozen river, so the tradition pre-dates 1608 by some time.
There have been many. Some are noted below, but for a good comprehensive list, you’ll find an excellent reference here.
The Great Frost of 1709 was believed to be the coldest winter for 500 years with temperatures measured at -10 Centigrade in Upminster. Widespread death of people, livestock, flora and fauna resulted.
Coldest winter for 50 years. On 29 December, the ironclad HMS Warrior – under construction – froze to her slipway on the Thames and had to be released by tugs.
Two cold snaps occurred in December and January, but the major freeze kicked in on 21 January, threatening power and supplies in an already-stretched austerity environment. The government applied severe rationing of goods and services, public morale plummetted. Conditions did not ease until mid-March, when the thaw causes severe flood damage throughout the country.
The Big Freeze started on 22 December 1962 and lasted until 5 March 1963. Snow remained on the ground in most areas for a full two months.
Update: Some readers have recommended books covering a lot of this. I have put them on our web site here.