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The last Frost Fair

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05/02/2009

By | From the Collections

As London reels under its worst “snow event” for 18 years, we’re bombarded with archive footage of previous worst winters: 1947 and 1962/3 in particular. The most marvellous of London’s winter events, however, last happened nearly 200 years ago: the Frost Fairs that would take place on the frozen Thames in the hardest winters have now died out. The last took place in 1814 and changes to the river mean that they will not happen again: they were dependant on the way the narrow arches of old London Bridge kept the river level upstream of the bridge relatively constant, and the large tidal range that affects the upper river since the bridge was replaced by one with wider arches, makes it impossible for the Thames to freeze so solidly.

In the 1860s, John Hodgkin – a retired lawyer, born in 1800, and the younger brother of the pathologist Thomas Hodgkin – was asked by his children to write down some of his early memories. Among them was a recollection of how, half a century before, he and his brother had seen the last Frost Fair:

“In the winter of 1813-14 occurred the great frost. It commenced the day after or the next day but one after Christmas day. It was ushered in by an intense fog which lasted two or three days, & in which an accident befel the carriage of the Prince Regent, which both alarmed him and detained him a considerable time on a journey he was taking to some nobleman’s… The frost lasted till about the 8th or 9th of 2nd month [February: as a good Quaker, Hodgkin does not use the customary names for months or days as these are seen as pagan]… 6 weeks & 1 day.

A fair was held for several days on the Thames between Blackfriars & London Bridge. My Brother and I walked there one day from Pentonville & remained a short time on the River close to the Fair. I do not remember many of the details [Hodgkin’s background probably meant that the boys looked at the fair from outside rather than exploring it!] but besides the vast crowds & the usual features of a pleasure fair, we saw a fire & also a large broad wheeled waggon on the ice.”

Hodgkin’s memories of this time also include skaters on the frozen Serpentine and, more prosaically, the nasty cold he got after walking long distances in the snow then standing in the cold when hot and sweaty. Some things never change: the Frost Fairs are gone but sadly the common cold lives on. Hodgkin’s memories can be consulted in the Library quoting the reference PP/HO/E/C5; the huge Hodgkin archive, including many more items relating to the Hodgkin brothers and their relatives, can be explored on the Archives department database under the reference PP/HO.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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