January 5, 1709 Frost Fair

The science is politicized. Vast sums of public largesse and political capital are lavished on the climate.  We are told to expect global warming, and warned of a coming ice age. The skeptical taxpayer who has to pay for it all is forced to wade through competing narratives, in an exercise not unlike taking a sip from a fire hose. 

Over the past two weeks, temperatures have dipped near 0° Fahrenheit, as far south as Alabama.  The capital of Florida awoke only yesterday to snow in the palm trees, as frozen iguanas fell to the ground.    Ice hangs from the Spanish mosses of Savannah, as something called a “bomb cyclone” worked its way toward the New England coast.


In July 1983, temperatures of -129° were recorded at the Soviet Vostok Station in Antarctica, the coldest temperature ever measured by ground instruments. NASA satellite data recorded a low temperature of -135.8°F in August, 2010.

Four years later, a Russian research ship full of environmental, scientific and activist types, the Akademik Shokalskiy, got stuck in Antarctic ice, as did the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which had come to their rescue.

Very few media outlets got around to reporting that they were there to study “global warming”.

The environmental activist types would object to my use of the term, preferring what they feel to be the more descriptive “climate change”.  They’re right to prefer the term. We can all agree that climate is changing, five ice ages demonstrate that much, but it does beg the question.  How, exactly, will we know we’ve reached climate optimum?

In England, accounts of the River Thames freezing over date back as early as 250AD. The river was open to wheeled traffic for 13 weeks in 923 and again in 1410.  That time, the freeze lasted for 14 weeks. By the early 17th century, the Thames became a place of “Frost Fairs”.


The “Medieval Warm Period” lasting from 950 to 1250 was followed by the “Little Ice Age”, a 300-year period beginning in the 16th century.  King Henry VIII rode a sleigh down the Thames from London to Greenwich in 1536.  Elizabeth I was out on the ice shooting at archery targets, in 1564.

English writer John Evelyn describes the famous “Frost Fair” of the winter of 1683-’84:  “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”.

The Great Frost of the winter of 1708-09 was held in the coldest winter Europe had seen in 500 years.  William Derham, an English clergyman and natural philosopher best known for calculating a reasonably accurate estimate of the speed of sound, recorded a low of −12°C (10 °F) on the night of January 5, 1709.  It was the lowest he’d measured since beginning readings in 1697, prompting the comment that “I believe the Frost was greater than any other within the Memory of Man”.

24,000 Parisians died of cold in the next two weeks.  Animals froze in their stalls and crops planted the prior year, failed.  The resulting famine killed an estimated 600,000 in France alone while, in Italy, the lagoons and canals of Venice, froze solid.

clip_image0026Breaks in cold weather inevitably marked the end of the frost fairs, sometimes all of a sudden.  In January 1789, melting ice dragged a ship with it, while tied to a riverside tavern, in Rotherhite.  Five people were killed when the building was pulled down on their heads.

The last Thames River frost fair took place in 1814, the year someone led an elephant across the ice, below Blackfriar’s Bridge.  Structural changes in river embankments and the demolition of the medieval London Bridge have increased water flow in the Thames, making it possible that the river will never freeze again.

Today, many blame weather extremes on “anthropogenic” (human) causes, associating what used to be called global warming”, with CO2. Others contend the reverse: that historic increases in carbon do not precede but rather result from, climate extremes. A third group associates the sun with climate change (imagine that), linking an extended period of low solar activity called the “Maunder Minimum”, with the brutal cold of 1645-1715.

The science is politicized. Vast sums of public largesse and political capital are lavished on the climate.  We are told to expect global warming, and warned of a coming ice age. The skeptical taxpayer who has to pay for it all is forced to wade through competing narratives, in an exercise not unlike taking a sip from a fire hose.

Meanwhile, the sun is going to do what the sun is going to do, which at the moment appears to be another quiet period in solar activity.  Very quiet. Before it’s over, we may find ourselves wishing for a little Global Warming.

Feature image, top:  The Battery, Charleston SC, January 2, 2018

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

7 thoughts on “January 5, 1709 Frost Fair”

  1. Now that’s cold! The world’s weather is a fascinating subject and it certainly swings between extremes. It would appear to be a lot wetter in the U.K. but milder, as suggested by pro climate change groups. We’ve not had very low temperatures for a long time and may long it last!!’ All very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If you like, I’ll pass interesting stuff your way. Great thing about the net, one post or author will remind me of another . . . I’ve connected several who end up liking each other’s posts frequently :)) And I truly admire what you take the time to do with your blog!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting take on it all- Here’s hoping you all thaw out soon!
    One of my profs in college was on a ship that got stuck in Antartic ice and had to be rescued- I wonder if it was the same one! (He actually gave up his work on meteorology etc because he became tired of how polarized and stuck in their own views people in the community were, and switched to teaching. His lectures were never dull!)

    Liked by 1 person

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