John Evelyn And The River Thames Frost Fairs

When you are looking at history, primary sources are always the ideal and it isn't everyday that you get to cite a gem like The Diary Of John Evelyn. First published in an 1818 edition as "Memoirs Illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn" by William Bray with the assistance of William Upcott, the diary serves as a memoir of a British royalist named John Evelyn. In his memoir which was written from 1620 to 1706, Evelyn wrote of many major historical events of the era including the Great Fire Of London in 1666, the death of Oliver Cromwell and the epidemic of the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665 and 1666. However, what makes his diary fascinating in a historical context when it comes to THIS blog is his mention of ice skating in England during that era!

Evelyn's diary entry from December 1, 1662 reads as follows: "Having seen the strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders on the new canal in St. James's Park, performed before their Majesties by divers gentlemen and others with skates, after the manner of the Hollanders, with what swiftness they pass, how suddenly they stop in full career upon the ice; I went home by water, but not without exceeding difficulty, the Thames being frozen, great flakes of ice encompassing our boat." Evelyn's mention of skating on the Thames is explained by a period known historically as The Little Ice Age, where the winters in England were much more severe than in present day and the river was wider and slower and blocked by the Old London Bridge and was frozen solid.

"A Wonderful Fair or a Fair of Wonders. A new and true illustration of and Description of the Several things Acted and Done on the River of Thames, in the time of the terrible frost", December 1684. Photo courtesy British Library.

The Thames was in fact frozen so solid that Frost Fairs were held on the ice, which included skating, entertainment, games of football and meals of roasted ox. The first recorded "official" Frost Fair was in 1608 and the final in 1814, when the weather took a turn for the better. In Evelyn's January 24, 1684 diary entry, he recounted in detail a Frost Fair including skating: "The frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames: this humor took so universally, that it was estimated that the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, etc. Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water, while it was a severe judgment on the land, the trees not only splitting as if the lightning struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers places, and the very seas so locked up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in. The fowls, fish, and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens, universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear, that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive. Nor was this severe weather much less intense in most parts of Europe, even as far as Spain and the most southern tracts. London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarcely breathe. Here was no water to be had from the pipes and engines, nor could the brewers and divers other tradesmen work, and every moment was full of disastrous accidents."

An account from Charles Mackay in 1683's "The Thames And Its Tributaries" also offers mention of skating during the Frost Fairs... and it is (pardon the pun) a chilling addition to the story: "And it is also reported, that some skait- sliders upon one of those large icy plains, were unawares driven to sea, and arrived living (though almost perished with cold and hunger) upon the sea coast of Essex; but as to the certainty of this report I refer to the credit of succeeding intelligence, as also those wonderful damages upon the coast of Scotland relating of the loss of some shipping, and the lives of many ingenious and industrious navigators ; nor may those prodigious and lamentable damages seem strange, when in our own harbour, the river of Thames, several ships, both inward and outward bound, as well at Redrif as other adjacent places, have been broken to pieces, and sunk by the effects of this so unparalleled a frost." Could you imagine going skating and finding yourself adrift on an ice floe at sea and landing up in a different county? I'm sorry, but that's terrifying. We're talking about an hour trip by ice or car but out in the elements floating around in the ocean? That's some Titanic stuff right there.

At any rate, how fortunate we are to have John Evelyn's very early written account of skating available and the fact that it also alludes to skating "after the manner of the Hollanders", considering it was the Dutch who added edges to skates in the thirteenth or fourteenth century and James II that introduced skating to the British aristocracy after his exile in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. I look at writing this blog in a way as sharing my own skating history diary with all of you and I'm thankful to John Evelyn for putting his own accounts of skating to paper so that I could share them.

I want to finish this blog with a wonderful quote from George Davis' 1814 book "Frostiana or A History of the River Thames in a Frozen State" that was actually published from a stall on the frozen Thames River: "Nothing can be more beautiful than the attitude of drawing the bow and arrow while the skater is making a large circle on the outside". Davis regarded one of skating's purest moves, the forward outside edge, as a thing of beauty then and today it remains one of figure skating's most beautiful movements. Full circle, literally.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":