The Great Frost

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On December 23rd, 1683, Evelyn describes "a greate frost." The Thames was frozen, and on the 1st of January the weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames. On the 6th the river was quite frozen over.

On the 9th, Evelyn crossed the Thames on the ice, which had become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths in which they roasted meat, but there were all sorts of shops present just like a town centre. Coaches, carts, and horses passed over.

He went from Westminster Stairs to Lambeth and dined with the Archbishop, and accompanied by Sir George Wheeler, walked back on the ice from Lambeth Stairs to the Horse Ferry. The frost continuing in severity, the Thames was filled with tents and people selling all sorts of items.

He tells us that the booths were planted in formal rows like streets, and that not only were the shops full of all sorts of commodities, but various trades were carried on, particularly printers, who set up a press where people, ladies especially, could have their names and the day and the year printed on card on the Thames.

Many of these cards are to be found in the Gardner and Crace collections. This became so popular that the enterprising printer made 5l a day for printing a line only, at 6d. a name, besides what he got by ballads, &c.

Coaches plied on the ice from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro as in the streets. Sleds, sliding with "skeetes" pulled by bulls, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, filled the area like a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the ice.

This winter was so severe that trees were split by the frost, birds and fish perished, and many parks of deer were destroyed, and fuel so dear that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive. London, by the excessive cold of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, became so filled with it that one could hardly see across the streets, and it filled the lungs so that breathing was difficult.

On the 5th of February it began to thaw, but froze again, and there being no water many trades, especially the brewers, had to stop. Evelyn crossed from Lambeth to the Horse Ferry at Millbank, but the thaw continuing, the booths all had to be taken down.

He adds that there was a map or landskip cut in copper representing the scene, and all the sports and pastimes listed. A sketch made by Thomas Wyck on the 4th of February is preserved in the British Museum, taken from near the Temple, and old London Bridge with its houses is visible in the distance. The following year in January the frost was very severe, and the Thames was frozen, but unsafe to venture upon.

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