A Frost Fair was a celebration that took place on the River Thames. Every so often the Regency people would suffer through a harsh winter that left the river frozen over. When the tideway section of the Thames froze, people took to the ice to slide with skeetes (ice skate), sled, perform puppet plays, race horses and coaches, play football, and any other activity that they could think of to do on the frozen water. Many likely looked forward to the winter being cold enough that an impromtu fair would be held, but in actuality the Frost Fairs were a rare occurrence.
Between the 17-19th centuries, the Thames River froze about once every ten years, although it froze for four winters between 1649-1666. The Thames is recorded to have frozen over in London for 23 winters, the closest ones during Regency times were in 1795 and 1814. The last time the higher Thames froze was in 1962-63. The first recorded Frost Fair was held in 1608 and the last main freeze occurred in 1814. There is also a Frost Fair mentioned as early as 695 AD. The Frost Fairs were often cut short by the change in weather and melting ice. Celebrations on the frozen river did have its share of dangers; reports of people falling through thin spots on the ice and drowning were known to occur.
So how did these Frost Fairs come about? The watermen who transported people along the Thames, along with the lightmen, who moved goods up and down the river, lost their ability to make money when the river was inaccessible. Following the traditions of their forebears they organized Frost Fairs when the river froze and charged traders and customers for access to the ice.
The fair goers relished walking upon the ice and visiting the tented booths. Parents enjoyed shows and dancing with food, drink, and friends, while watching their children skate and frolic upon the ice. Between 1607-1814, there were seven major fairs and countless smaller ones.
The last Frost Fair began on February 1, 1814 and lasted four days. Thousands of people turned up everyday, making it one of the largest fairs on record. During this freeze some of the Thames was several feet thick and strong enough to support the weight of an elephant as they purposely marched an elephant across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge. Even a heavy printing press was brought out onto the ice to print souvenirs. These souvenir cards were sold for a sixpence.
There was dancing, games, and merriment to be found at the fair. Fiddlers played so people could dance the reel, and drinking tents were filled with ladies and their companions. There were many campfires with revelers sitting around them. Alcohol was happily sold and purchased by many who wished to partake in drams of mead and cups of gin and rum. Lewd behavior was also noted and looked down upon at the fairs, but of course those kinds of shenanigans continued. Tea and coffee were also sold. Food vendors sold gingerbread and mince pies, while fires roasting oxen, geese, sheep, and rabbits turned on numerous spits on the ice. Tradesmen sold books, toys, and other trinkets.
Through the years, changes were made to the River Thames regarding embankments and wider archways to allow the tide to flow more freely. These saltier waterways decreased the chances of the River Thames freezing.
A special thank you to: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25862141 , http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Thames-Frost-Fairs/ , http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/frost-fairs-of-london.html