Winter of 1813-1814: The Great London Fog and Frost

A Light Fog in London, Courtesy of Wikipedia
A Light Fog in London. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the winter of 1813-1814, a thick fog rolled into London. It was followed by a terrible frost and one of the coldest periods on record occurred from January to March. One newspaper reported it was “the heaviest mist and thickest fog ever remembered … [which] produced the thickest and most beautiful hoar frost that ever decorated the branches and tendrils of Britain’s vegetation.”[1] Moreover, the thickness and density of the fog was made worse by the “smoke of the city; so much so that it produce a very sensible effect on the eyes, and the coal tar vapour [was] … distinctly perceived by the smell.”[2]

The Prince Regent Before He Became George IV, Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Prince Regent Before He Became George IV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The fog began on 27/28 December 1813 and continued until 3 January 1814. It was so thick and so bad, it affected everyone. For instance, on the 28th as the Maidenhead coach was returning to town, it missed the appropriate road near Harford Bridge and overturned. Lord Hawarden was among the passengers harmed. The next day, on the 29th, when the Prince Regent was attempting to visit the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield House, before he reached Hatfield, one of his outriders fell in a ditch, and it took several hours to get him out of the ditch.

There were numerous other victims of the fog. The Birmingham mail coach was one victim. It took the coach nearly 7 hours to go 20 miles (from the Post Office to the Uxbridge bridge), and this time-consuming trip occurred despite the coach taking extra precautions. Hackney coachmen also found themselves victims of the fog. It was so bad they got off their boxes and led their horse, and even then, the fog was so thick and dense, they often mistook pathways for roads and much confusion resulted when they met another coach head-on.

Foot pedestrians were no better off than coaches because street lamps appeared no bigger than a small candle or in some cases there was no light at all. That is exactly what happened to Lord Eldon. He suffered a serious concussion because the fog was so thick he couldn’t see where he was going and hit his head against the Opera House. Foot pedestrians also had to be wary of coaches, and to avoid being run down, they cried out as they walked along, “Who is coming?” “Mind!” or “Take care!”[3] Moreover, pedestrians who did not have lanterns got turned around or became lost on streets they knew and traversed frequently.

After the fog lifted, the weather situation did not improve. Almost immediately heavy snow began to fall. During the snowfall, a short thaw occurred. It barely lasted a day and made the situation worse because roadways became icy and slick. One to two-foot icicles also hung everywhere, water pipes were frozen, and roofs were so covered in snow, roof cave-ins were feared. With nowhere to put the snow, it ended up in the streets and that made streets impassable. In fact, in many areas, carriages, stages, and hackney coaches were unable to plow through the snow, and with streets nearly deserted, street vendors closed their businesses and shops.

Entrance into and out of London was also practically at a standstill. There were varying reports as to the depth of the snow. Some people reported it was eight feet deep, others said sixteen feet deep, and still others reported mountain size heaps. The only two passable roads in and out of London were Kent and Essex roads. Further, it was practically impossible to travel on the Thames River because of the vast quantities of floating ice. The ice was carried by the tides and sometimes the pieces formed a chain of glaciers, which would then suddenly separated crashing, cracking, and dashing against one another, making it dangerous for anyone traveling on the river. 

Frost Fair on the Thames, Courtesy of the British Museum
Frost Fair on the Thames. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The only benefit of all the cold weather was the Thames River eventually froze solid. This resulted in an impromptu Frost Fair, which lasted from 31st January to 5th February. Watermen charged admission of two or three pence per person, and peddlers sold their wares. There were also “kitchen fires and furnaces … blazing and boiling in every direction, and animals, from a sheep to a rabbit, and a goose to a lark, were turning on numerous spits.”[4]

Many other activities also occurred. Skittles, sledging, and bull-baiting were enjoyed, drinking tents were filled with people, and open fires had people sitting around drinking rum, grog, and other spirits. Tea, coffee, and eatables were also available. There were also numerous booths selling toys, books, and trinkets labelled “Bought on the Thames.” Even a dance was held. It was set up on a barge that had firmly frozen in place a considerable distance off shore.

There were also a number of printing presses on the ice. One pressman produced and sold the following article:

“Behold, the river Thames is frozen o’er,
Which lately ships of might burden bore;
Now different arts and pastimes here you see,
But printing claims superiority. 

Printed to commemorate a remarkably severe frost, which commenced December 27, 1813, accompanied by an unusual thick fog, that continued eight days, and was succeeded by a tremendous fall of snow, which prevent all communications with the northern and western reads for several days. The Thames presented a complete field of ice between London and Blackfriars-bridge, on Monday the 31st of January, 1814. A fair is this day (February 1, 1814,) held, and the whole space between the two Bridges covered with spectators.”[5]

Frost Fair Notice, Courtesy of Museum of London
Frost Fair Notice. Courtesy of Museum of London.

Despite all the popularizing of the Frost Fair, the fair was not long lasting. Around the 5th of February a thaw occurred that was quickened after a slight rain began. Nevertheless, a thousand people ventured out onto the ice despite signs that it was breaking apart (loud cracks were heard). A short time after the people had passed over the ice, the “whole mass gave way, and swept with a tremendous rage through the noble arches of Blackfriars bridge, carrying along with it all within its course, including about forty barges.”[6] Moreover, as the thaw continued, the tides flowed faster and swept away some booths, including a printing press and at least two men fell “victims to their temerity in venturing on the ice.”[7]

The winter of 1813-1814 would eventually be considered “one of the four or five coldest winters in the CET [Central England Temperature] record.”[8]  The winter was also cold enough that the Thames became so solidly frozen someone dared take an elephant across it below the Blackfriars Bridge. However, Britain’s climate was changing and the weather was becoming milder. Once the old London Bridge was demolished and replaced with a bridge with wider arches, the tides flowed more freely, thereby making it much less likely the river would ever freeze, and, thus, the Frost Fair of 1814 was the last one held in London.

References:

Google+ Comments

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>