Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Party On the River: The Little Ice Age in London

Climate Change has been at the forefront of the scientific (and political) conversation for over a decade.  First touted as “Global Warming,” the nomenclature has changed through the years to better fit the reality.  There is no doubt that our climate is changing.  Written history, the archaeological record and the geologic record all tell us that climate is cyclic and goes through periods of warming and cooling.  The most dramatic and destructive of those cycles brought intense cold and continent size glaciers to the Northern Hemisphere that lasted for thousands of years each time.
Intense warming in the early middle ages, brought temperatures thought to be much warmer than the present, and resulted in massive population growth in Northern Europe.  Greenland became so temperate that Scandinavian explorers established settlements that lasted for generations.  Those settlements were abandoned when the climate changed again with the “Little Ice Age,” which lasted from the mid 14th Century until the early 19th Century. 

North America is experiencing unusually cold and snowy weather this winter.  As of early February, the Great lakes are over 90% ice covered, the most the lakes have seen since the mid 1990s.  The reports of the ice on the lakes made me take notice of this blog post (thanks for sharing Greg!)  I’ve reblogged it here.  Go to the original site to see even more photos.
The Frost Fair: When the River Thames Froze Over Into London's Most Debaucherous Party
by Allison Meier - Feb 7, 2014

For additional period art work of the Frost Fairs go to the original blog:

From about 1550 to 1850, the world was in what scientists have deemed a "Little Ice Age."  The frigid centuries included the spectacular sight of the River Thames in London freezing over, sometimes with ice so solid people decided to go out and have a festival on the river.
The Frost Fairs were staged on the frozen Thames in 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789, and 1814. Parallel exhibitions commemorating the 200 year anniversary of the last Frost Fair in February of 1814 are being held at the Museum of London in the City of London and the Museum of London Docklands.  Frozen Thames: Frost Fair 1814 shows the winter bacchanalia from the Frost Fair, where the main trade was booze and the principal activity was having as wild a time as possible without breaking the ice.

Through etchings, paintings, mementos printed by enterprising press owners, and even a 200-year-old block of gingerbread - the "only surviving piece of gingerbread bought at the 1814 Frost Fair" - you can get an idea of the joy and chaos of the Frost Fairs.  It seems the artists most delighted in showing people falling on the ice (one of the drinks served along with beer and gin was a highly intoxicating concoction called "Purl" that involved wormwood), but you can also spy participants roasting sheep, playing games like bowling and "throwing at cocks" (that seemed to involve hurling things at roosters), and even fox hunting and bull-baiting. Some reports even claim an elephant walked across the ice, but sadly it did not make it into these tableaux.

"Gingerbread and wrapper, 1814" (© Museum of London) "This is the only surviving piece of gingerbread bought at the 1814 Frost Fair. At 200 years old it is now a little hard, but still smells of ginger and spice. "

Of course, every ice event has its seasonal end, and the Frost Fair would conclude tumultuously with the sounds of cracking ice and inebriated revelers scrambling for the shores.  While with the current climate and the alteration of the architecture of the Thames it's not likely there will be another Frost Fair, you can find memories of it in the city.  Under the Southwark Bridge, Richard Kindersley created a series of engravings on slate remembering the fair with this inscription:

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
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

Abraham Hondius, "The Frozen Thames, 1677," (© Museum of London)


"A Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs," 1684, Abraham Hondius (© Museum of London)

"Frost Fair on the River Thames, 1684" (c.1800), unknown artist (© Museum of London)

Printed keepsake, 2 February 1814 (© Museum of London) "This simple, hastily produced example conveys the urgency and excitement of being there."

"View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf, 1814," Burkitt & Hudson (© PLA Collection / Museum of London)