During the Little Ice Age Britain’s cold winters were a time of hardship, but our resourceful forebears found ways to make the best of the icy conditions
What was the Little Ice Age?
Ensconced in our warm homes, or perhaps enjoying a toe-tingling walk before sitting beside a glowing log fire in a village pub, it can be difficult to appreciate the forebodings felt by our ancestors at the first flutters of snow. The period known as the Little Ice Age – roughly from the 14th to mid-19th centuries – brought more frequent severe cold winters to Britain than today, heralding hardships for many.
The 14th-century poet William Langland gives us a grim glimpse in Piers Plowman of “the poor in the cottage, burdened with a crew of children” who “suffer painfully with hunger in winter”, while an Elizabethan pamphleteer later wrote of “cold doings” and livestock languishing in the countryside while frozen rivers prevented food from reaching London.
In the 1660s we find diarist Samuel Pepys bemoaning “the coldest day that ever was remembered in England; and, God knows! coals at a very great price”. In 1809 a river torrent carried off Eton Bridge leaving King George III stranded at Windsor. Winter weather showed courtesy to no one.
Yet people both high-born and low have always been resourceful in finding ways to make the best of winter’s icy stage: whether to eke a living with a novel enterprise, or to raise spirits (and body temperature) with outdoors fun and antics.
While royals and courtiers might indulge in seasonal hunting, the poet-cum-priest Alexander Barclay (c. 1475–1552) tells in his Eclogues of football and other ball-games being played by those lower down the social order: “Running and leaping they drive away the cold, The sturdy ploughman lusty, strong, and bold, Overcometh the winter with driving the foot ball, Forgetting labour and many a grievous fall.”
Christmas festivities provided a welcome interlude to dark dreary days, when lords and masters were expected to show largesse to their underlings, usually in the form of food. A record of a medieval dinner of bread, meat “and sufficient ale” given for peasants on a Glastonbury Abbey manor includes the not-uncommon stipulation that each should “bring before Christmas one bundle of firewood to cook his dish.
And if he does not do this he shall have his victual uncooked.” No doubt appetites – already keen – were further stoked by foraging for fuel. The bone-biting winter chills of the Little Ice Age often froze rivers. Chronicles refer to Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, riding in a sleigh over the ice-bound Thames from Whitehall to Greenwich during the winter of 1536–37, while at Christmas 1564 Queen Elizabeth I is said to have walked and practised archery on its solid surface.
The novelty of frost fairs on iced-over rivers lightened moods too. On the River Ouse at York in 1607, for example, merrymaking included bowling, football, cudgels and even a horse race.
But it was London’s frost fairs on the Thames that became most famous. From the early 1600s to 1814 the river surface froze over some 24 times, halting the normal bustle of waterborne commerce and travel and putting bargemen out of work. The entrepreneurially minded fitted their boats with runners and charged sightseers for rides, while local tradespeople set up booths and entertainments on the ice.
The first officially documented Thames frost fair took place in 1608 when the river iced over for six whole weeks. Among records is the description of an excited Londoner recounting “being shaved in the middle of the frozen Thames: an experience to be remembered in the afterlife!”
Meanwhile diarist John Evelyn captured the atmosphere of the most celebrated frost fair, held over several weeks of the “unsufferably cold” winter of 1683–84: “There was likewise bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks and tippling, and lewder places, so as it seemed to be a bacchanalia, triumph or carnival on the water…”
A printing press was hauled onto the ice so that people could buy personalised souvenir tickets of their visit: “the printer gained five pound a day for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads etc”. Even Charles II and his court purchased one (which you can view in the Museum of London’s online collection).
The last frost fair on the London Thames took place in February 1814: an exuberant five-day extravaganza of gambling dens, drinking tents, dancing, skating, and feasts of roast ox and ‘Lapland mutton’ (mutton cooked over coal fires). Daring folk triumphantly led an elephant across the frozen river near Blackfriars Bridge – a risky exploit considering how many hapless people had fallen through thawing ice over the years.
A changing climate and alterations to the London Thames – a new London Bridge, dredging, embankment – would subsequently make river waters too deep and fast-flowing to freeze.
Ice-skating on the Thames
Yet a general love of open-air skating prevailed whenever the chance offered. Queen Victoria records in her journal the delights of watching her husband Albert skating and playing ice hockey on frozen water at Frogmore, Windsor, at Christmas 1840: “Albert pushed me in a sledge chair on the ice, which was delightful & it went with such rapidity. I had never been on the ice before.”
The royal enthusiasm was widely shared, as The Illustrated London Almanack for 1853 noted while reminiscing over scenes in London parks: “Skating has one advantage over many other amusements, that it is free alike to the rich and poor.”
Hearty outdoor pursuits continued to be a feature of many a country house winter, no better epitomised than by the 9th Duke of Marlborough’s Christmas gatherings at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, in the early decades of the 20th century. There were torchlit processions in the park, a paper-chase on horseback, and moonlit escapades on the frozen lake, as one guest, Lady Eleanor Smith, recalled: “Torches glared; lanterns darted with the swiftness of fireflies. The clash of skates tinkled as crisply as sleigh bells and the dark figures of the skaters flashed like tiny dolls across the illuminated ice.”
Some readers might still remember the severe, snowy winters of 1947 and 1963 – during the latter the Thames froze upriver from London and a car was driven over it at Oxford, while people in Windsor took to the ice to play football, walk and cycle. But today our winters are generally far milder, and the Little Ice Age for now is frozen in history.
This is an extract, read the full feature in the November/December 2023 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 6 October.