...now and then comes a winter when the sun seems to have rolled further away from us, and left us to drift northward and freeze up against the pole.
The Frost Fair of 1814, with the High Flyer swings
In London, the year 1813 ended in a week without a breath of wind. A dense fog formed, enveloping the city and the country for miles round, and the smoke from the city's chimneys soon thickened the mixture. On December 27th, the nocturnal fog was so impenetrable that the Prince Regent, intending to travel from London to Hertfordshire, had to return after one of his outriders fell into a ditch near Kentish Town. His abortive trip took seven hours. Other travellers also took several hours to go a few miles. On December 28th the Maidenhead coach missed the road, overturned, and injured several persons. On December 29th, the Birmingham mail coach took seven hours to journey twenty miles.
FOG AND SNOW
There was an intimation of things to come with the fog. The droplets of which it was composed froze upon any surface they touched, forming a layer of ice up to half an inch thick.
The fog lasted until January 3rd, 1814, and travel was about to become even more arduous. Heavy snow fell for 48 hours. There was a brief thaw lasting only a day. Then the wind turned to the north and north-east, a direction from which it was to blow for nearly a month. On January 13th, the wind became a blizzard. The transport ship Queen, bringing a regiment of soldiers back from Spain, dragged her anchors in Falmouth Bay and went aground on rocks with the loss of 250 lives.
The River Tyne in Newcastle became a 'perfect sheet of ice' on January 14th. On January 29th, the ice was a glassy surface up to ten inches thick, and tents were erected. Next day, thousands strolled upon the river to see football and racing, with and without skates. Further north, the Solway Firth, between England and Scotland, became a rugged solid ice plain from shore to shore, with a covering of frozen snow.
A WHITE PLAIN
The snow lay all over England three feet deep, with drifts up to 24 feet high. The white plain, blotting out all roads and landmarks, was strewn with abandoned wagons, carts, and coaches. The Windsor coach, after being dragged through 16 feet of snow by 50 labourers to Colnbrook, four miles distant, stuck immovably. On January 21st, 20 inches of snow fell in six hours. In parts of Devonshire the snow lay 14 feet deep, and in Exeter all shops were shut for a day due to snow-filled windows.
Transport was disrupted, including the important Royal Mail post-coaches, which normally only stopped to deliver mail and change horses. On January 17th, mail-coaches from Scotland failed to reach Carlisle, and three days’ mail were overdue from beyond Exeter. It was rumoured that they had been lost in the snow, with the passengers and post guards frozen to death. On January 22nd, London became alarmed at the unprecedented delay to the mail. The Scottish mail, having finally reached Carlisle and then the outskirts of London in a coach pulled by ten horses, took six hours to traverse eleven miles of road, with the horses repeatedly having to be dragged out of snowdrifts up to 20 feet deep. The Leeds coach was abandoned, and the mail carried 40 miles across country. The Royal Mail guards, who were obliged to deliver the post on foot if their coach failed, "fought with the snow like heroes", but often in vain.
The cold became lethal. On January 21st, a glazier of Coltsworth froze to death after being thrown from his horse. On January 27th, a charwoman was found frozen to death in London, and a reckless person venturing onto a River Thames ice floe at Millbank was carried downriver until he fell off and drowned.
On January 29th the wind turned to the south-west, and there was a brief thaw, followed by heavy snow which turned to heavy rain. Now it was floods which made the roads impassable. Then the cold returned, and the ice-sheathed roads became impossible.
The River Thames was already strewn with 'vast heaps of floating ice', which, on January 26th, filled the space between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. By January 30th, the floes had become a solid sheet, and people began to venture onto it. On February 1st, thousands of Londoners were taking the opportunity to stroll on their river. One, a young plumber, fell between two ice masses and was never seen again. This was the day that the Thames watermen, now unemployed, imposed their 'ice-toll'. They charged each visitor to the river two or three pence, and some made six pounds a day, for on February 2nd the Frost Fair began. Next day it was visited by thousands of people.
A ROAD ON THE RIVER
A 'grand mall’, named the 'City road' was set up on the frozen river between Blackfriars and London Bridge, with sheds and booths erected. Visitors amused themselves on the 'High Flyer' swings and sampled a roasted sheep or hot mutton pies. They might visit a barber's shop, or drink freely at the 'Whiskey Shop', the 'Lord Wellington for ever', or another of the numerous bars.
The Fair was not fated to last long. On February 2nd, an elephant was brought onto the frozen river. It has been estimated that ice one and a half inches thick will support a man, four inches a horse and rider, and ten inches a crowd, and presumably an elephant. The appearance of the elephant was the last attraction of what was to be the last Frost Fair. On February 3rd, there were signs that the ice, heaved up into mountains, was beginning to break, although thousands of sightseers still roamed the river. In the afternoon, an ice floe carrying an old man and two boys broke loose above London Bridge and was swept through an arch. They were rescued by boatmen in an insensible state, and carried to a public house to recover.
An ice-jam at London Bridge, February 5, 1814
On February 5th, the wind swung to the south. In the evening, rain fell. The ice began to crack. Two young men, marooned on a floating ice mass, called 'most piteously for help' as they were swept under Westminster Bridge, until their floe overturned and they were drowned.
On February 6th, a storm began to break up the ice on the River Clyde in Scotland, which had been a foot thick since January 3rd.
The thaw set in with a will on February 7th. The Thames was filled with 'grand masses' of floating ice, which did much damage to river craft as they drifted to the sea. Two men, left to guard a booth, spent the evening drinking gin, until, in the early hours, they discovered that their ice raft was being swept towards Blackfriars Bridge. Then their booth caught fire. The men leapt into a drifting lighter, but this also was driven against the bridge. The men threw themselves into the river, clung to a bridge pier and were saved.
With the thaw came the floods. Many were drowned in Lincolnshire, where the Isle of Ely was inundated until February 23rd. The Great Frost brought hardship as well as amusement. Many were unemployed, and the prices of coal and food had become 'extravagant'. By the end of January, 1,265 poor families were on relief in London. "While the Earl of Eglington was giving merry curling-matches near his castle, Yorkshire mail-coach guards were plunging into the snow...While London dandies were driving sledges, poor Scotch packmen and Highland shepherds were perishing".
THE FROST OF 1814