Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sports & Games - A Skittles Argument + a brief History

Argument Two Peasants quarrelling over a game of skittles; village and forest in background Print by Monogramist FVB c 1475-1500 Netherlandish

In England, skittles grew in popularity for the common-man during the 15C & 16C to the point where “Common bowling-alleys  are privy mothes that eat up the credit of many idle citizens,” (Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579). John Stow, writing in his Survey of London in 1598, complained about the loss of space for defensive martial sports, particularly archery; because “by the means of closing in of common grounds, our archers, for want of room to shoot abroad, creep into bowling-alleys and ordinary dicing-houses near home.”  He also cited specific examples such as Northumberland house in London “being deserted by that noble family, the gardens were converted into bowling-alleys, and the other parts into dicing houses.” By the mid 17C, schoolboys were playing “at skittle-pins, or dust-point” according to an example given in a Latin primer of 1649 (An Easie Entrance to the Latine Tongue, Charles Hoole) & another common use of the term was recorded a few years later during the civil war: “Unruly Rulers are like Ninepins, advanced one by one, to be thrown down by sixes and seavens” (Nathaniel Church, A Pocket-Companion made of 500 Proverbial Aphorismes, 1657.) By the early 18C, British skittles appeared to have a class element creeping in. John Strype’s 1720 Survey of London lists “the modern sports of the citizen besides drinking” and includes “bowling upon greens” before going on to list the “diversions” of “the lower classes” which include “bowling in allies and skittles.”  Bowling greens rather than alleys that figured in the great gardens of the day. Even so, Charles Cotton whose Compleat Gamester was published in 1674 was scathing about both. “The Bowling-green, or  Bowling-Alley is a place where three things are thrown away beside the Bolts - Time, Money, and Curses.”

See: Parks & Gardens UK

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sports & Games - 18-19C Skittles & Rackets & Fives at Prison

The raquet ground of the Fleet Prison as drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11) Prisoners playing Fives and Skittles, and socializing. Those imprisoned here were found guilty of debt or contempt of court. Aquatint View of the inner court of the prison, with the prisoners playing rackets and skittles on the left, others standing watching, a number of men smoking pipes, others lounging across benches. 1807 The Fleet Prison stood on the eastern bank of the Fleet River, just outside the city walls. The prison burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, but rebuilt much as before, consisting of several long buildings (with 4 upper stories and a cellar) arranged around yards in which better-off prisoners could play rackets or skittles.

In its earliest form during the 18C, rackets was played in the open on the walls of the yards of the 2 main debtor's prisons in London, the King's Bench and the Fleet. Fleet Prison was mainly a debtors’ prison. William Penn was held there in 1707-1709 for debt. However,the prison also held political and religious prisoners. In 1601, the poet John Donne was imprisoned in it for marrying a woman without her father’s consent. Gentlemen, imprisoned until they could find the wherewithal to repay their creditors, amused themselves with many different activities around the prison yard. These included skittles, fives, which was played both with the hand and a bat, and some brought tennis rackets with them and improvised against any convenient wall, sometimes with no side walls and always without a back wall. Spectators as well as prison visitors often came to watch matches in the prisons.

Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, 3 people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed.”  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners! 

Fleet was a profit-making enterprise. Nothing was free in prison. Food and lodging had to be paid for by the prisoner. There were fees for turning keys, fees for putting on of irons and fees for taking them off again. Even visitors had to pay fees. And the Fleet had the highest fees in the country. Prisoners with a trade such as tailoring might continue to work and earn while in captivity, but many others were reduced to begging. While the poorest prisoners languished in the cellar dungeons (known as Bartholomew Fair), those able to afford it could be lodged in large comfortable quarters on the Master's Side. The Fleet Prison management also supplemented its income by the provision of a prison tap room and coffee-room which were open to the public. The rackets court was also open to the public.

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus: To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell

See: The History of Rackets

Monday, November 28, 2016

18C Skittles - A Little Disagreement with the "Authorities" a Local Tavern or Inn

Pub'd as the Act directs, for the proprietor by W. Dickie, No. Strand, E. Macklew, No. 9 Haymarket and W. Moore, No. 48 New Bond Street, 1787 Sept. 17th. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C 

The rise of Methodism and concerns for stricter morality & order became more apparent in Britain in the mid-late 18C. At this time, skittle grounds were scenes of crime. A response to the magistrates who dictated that skittle grounds in and near London to be level, and the frames removed. In 1751, skittles was one of several pub games to be banned, with publicans potentially losing their licence and being fined for allowing them to be played.The first set of restrictions may have applied just to places that sold spirits, rather than simple ale-houses, because further legislation was passed in 1757, to reinforce that but aimed specifically at the working class. Newspapers reported plenty of drunkenness, as well as robberies, fights, & even murders there.

Print shows three men of some importance trying to pry a skittle board from the ground using bars labeled "Justass" and "Mo-Ral-I-Ty"; a pick labeled "Proclamation" lies on the ground nearby with balls and pegs, and from over a fence a donkey brays at them; a tavern keeper stands to the left holding a tankard on which is written "Done ... over," also, two men have large birds stuffed in their coat pockets or something like that.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sports & Games - 18-19C Skittles & Rackets in Britain both in & out of Prison

Debtors Playing Rackets at the Fleet Prison in 1827

A Brief History of Rackets

In its earliest form during the 18C, rackets was played in the open on the walls of the yards of the 2 main debtor's prisons, King's Bench &  Fleet. Gentlemen, imprisoned by their creditors, amused themselves with many different activities around the prison yard. These included skittles, fives, which was played both with the hand and a bat, and some debtors brought tennis rackets with them and improvised against any convenient wall, sometimes with no side walls and usually without a back wall.
"The Humours of the Fleet: An humorous, descriptive Poem. Written by a Gentleman of the College," & "London: Printed for B. Dickinson, the Corner of the Bell-Savage Inn, on Ludgate-Hill. 1749. The design represents the "yard" of the Fleet, with 2 prisoners playing at racket against the high wall, and several men looking idly at the game...Below the design the following verses are engraved : "Welcome Welcome Brother Debtor To this poor but merry place..." 

There is mention of rackets at the Fleet in the poem The Humours of The Fleet in 1749 and in John Howard's report on the state of prisons in England and Wales published in 1780. It is not until the early 1800s that rackets becomes part of life outside the prisons. In his Book of Sports and Mirror of Life published by Pierce Egan in 1832, there is a long description of rackets mentioning several open rackets courts other than the King's Bench and the Fleet. One of these was at the Belvedere Tavern, Pentonville, where most of the Open Court Championships were played. Others were to be found elsewhere in London, again at public houses, at the Eagle Tavern on the City Road, The White Bear Kennington, the White Conduit House, and the Rosemary Branch, Peckham.

There are records of courts at Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and Belfast. Egan states that if a gentleman sought a game at a tavern he would have to mix with those not of the highest rank in society. Implicit in this observation is that the debtors prison may have had a higher class of player (in both meanings of the word), and mention is made of a Major Campbell who was the best player in the King's Bench through having been incarcerated there for 14 years. 

Spectators as well as prison visitors often came to watch matches in the prisons. Dickens mentions rackets in the Pickwick Papers, as Mr Pickwick had the misfortune to be incarcerated in the Fleet. From Dickens' description the Fleet court appears to have had a front wall and one sidewall. In 1814, there were 4 courts at the King's Bench and six racket masters to look after them. Early courts outside the prisons had a front wall only, about 40 feet wide and 45 ft high.

Outside prisons and taverns, Harrow was the 1st school at which rackets was played, probably from the early 1820s, when the schoolyard was enlarged. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities had courts by 1855, the date of the first Varsity match. There were courts built at Torquay in 1859 and the first covered court at Harrow school, built in 1865 is still in use today. Devonshire Park at Eastbourne included a rackets court built in 1870, as part of its general recreational facilities. Between 1870 and 1890, courts were built at the new Princes Club, Manchester, Liverpool; and in 1888, the courts at The Queen's Club were opened.

Sources: Book of Racquets J.R. Atkins. The Badminton Library. The Lonsdale Library. British Sports and Sportsmen. Willis Faber Book of Tennis and Rackets Lord Aberdare. The Queens Club Story Roy McKelvie

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Sports & Games - 1770s Skittles on "Saint Monday" at the Local Tavern or Inn

Saint Monday in the Afternoon, or All Nine and Swallow the Bowl 1770s. This print is evidently based on one of Francis Hayman's paintings of the early 1740s for the supper-boxes at Vauxhall Gardens: "The Play of Skittles and the Husband upbraided by the Wife." The Hayman painting is lost, but its composition is recorded in a drawing at Birmingham City Art Gallery. See B. Allen, Francis Hayman, Exhibition Catalogue, Yale Center for British Art, 1987, Lettered with title, 15 lines of verse beginning, "Just at the Finish of a Game ...", and publication line: "Sold by R. Marshall, at No, 4, in Aldermary Church Yard London."

In this print, 9 tradesman; a weaver, barber, tailor, blacksmith, cobbler, butcher, carpenter, bricklayer, and house-painter play skittles in tavern garden, with wife of weaver arriving from left to berate him. Saint Monday was the traditional unofficial, day-long holiday taken by tradesmen in the 17C to 20C. 

Explaining the angry wife in this print, an 18C folk song from Sheffield, England, "The Jovial Cutler," portrays a craftsman enjoying a lazy Saint Monday, much to the dismay of his wife:
"Brother workmen, cease your labour,
Lay your files and hammers by.
Listen while a brother neighbour
Sings a cutler's destiny:
How upon a good Saint Monday,
Sitting by the smithy fire,
We tell what's been done o't Sunday,
And in cheerful mirth conspire."

Soon I hear the trap-door rise up,

On the ladder stands my wife:
"Damn thee, Jack, I'll dust thy eyes up,
Thou leads a plaguy drunken life;
Here thou sits instead of working
Wi' thy pitcher on thy knee;
Curse thee, thou'd be always lurking
And I may slave myself for thee."

"Ah, the bright, fat, idle devil

Now I see thy goings on,
Here thou sits all day to revel
Ne'er a stroke o' work thou'st done.
See thee, look what stays I've gotten,
See thee, what a pair o' shoes;
Gown and petticoat half rotten,
Ne'er a whole stitch in my hose."

"Pray thee, look here, all the forenoon

Thou's wasted with thy idle way;
When does t'a mean to get thy sours done?
Thy mester wants 'em in to-day.
Thou knows I hate to broil and quarrel,
But I've neither soap nor tea;
Od burn thee, Jack, forsake thy barrel,
Or nevermore thou'st lie wi' me."

The tradition of taking Monday off has been common among craft workers since at least the 17C, often ascribed to the regimentation of working class life which occurred with industrialization, before then people could choose their own working hours. Since many workers were taking Monday off, there was often convivial company to be had.  They invented a new holiday, Saint Monday, which was usually observed after a late Sunday night at the tavern. Saint Monday became the traditional unofficial holiday taken by tradesmen in the 17C to the early 19C. 

British work had always been interrupted to commemorate the annual feasts of Christmas, New Year, & Whitsuntide (the week beginning with the 7th Sunday after Easter). These traditional holidays were universally observed, but the length of the breaks varied. Depending on local convention, work stopped for anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks. There were also communal holidays associated with special, occasional events such as horse races, sporting competitions, and local fairs & traveling circuses & menageries. When one of these attractions arrived in a village or town, regular work more or less stopped, while people flocked to marvel at exotic animals, equestrian acrobats, & assorted oddities. 

With only Sunday off to relax, the occurrence of Monday hangovers seems to have been high. Hence the idea of "keeping Saint Monday," a common phrase in the 17C to 19C used to describe taking Mondays off "to relax, to recover from drunkenness, or both." The custom was already well known in the 17C, as evidenced by the line in the play: "They say Monday's Shooemaker's holliday, I'le fall to that trade" (Dekker, If It Be Not Good, The Diuel Is In It (1612). 

Monday was sacrosanct. It was the unofficial day off. It was to be spent drinking with friends. In A Collection of Letters for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, John Houghton, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote in his 2nd volume 1683. "When the Frame-work Knitters, or Makers of Silk-Stockings had a great Price for their Work, they have been observed seldom to work on Mundays and Tuesdays, but to spend most of that time at the Ale-House and Nine-Pins. . . . The Weavers, 'tis common with them to be drunk on Munday, to have their Heads ache on Tuesday, and their Tools out of order on Wednesday. As for the Shoemakers, they'l rather be hang'd than not remember St. Crispin on Munday; and it commonly holds as long as they have a penny of Money or pennyworth of Credit."

A rhyme printed in 1639,
You know that Munday is Sundayes brother;
Tuesday is such another;
Wednesday you must go to Church and pray;
Thursday is half-holiday;
On Friday it is too late to begin to spin;
The Saturday is half-holiday again.

Then the industrial revolution came along and imposed strict working schedules on the peasants. But according to E P Thompson, Saint Monday was still widely honored throughout the 18C, 19C, and even the 20C. A moralist complained of London saddlers in 1811, that "we see Saint Monday so religiously kept in this great general followed by a Saint Tuesday also."

See: Tom Hodgkinson, “In Defence of Skiving” in New Statesman, 30 August 2004 
Douglas A. Reid, “The Decline of Saint Monday” in Essays in Social History Volume 2

Le Grand Saint Lundi (The Giant Saint Monday) – The Patron Saint of Drinkers, Jean Wendling, (French, 1800-1863) Detail 1837

Friday, November 25, 2016

Skittles 17C

Skittles by Peter Rollos (active 1619-1639), The Centre of Love 1687. Many of the cities of this period had been designed to protect their inhabitants from hostile attacks & were built on plateaus often surrounded by walls. This greatly reduced the areas where ball games requiring a great distance could be played. Consequently, many games became miniaturized, played in small enclosures or courtyards.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sports & Games - 13-17C Ground Billiards

Ground Billiards Woodcut based on a medieval tapestry commissioned by the St. Lo Monastery of France, circa the 1500s.

The Billiards game we know today appears to have developed from a game called "ground billiards." Although some believe it originated in Spain or Italy, this game probably emerged first in England or France during Medieval times. In Italy the game was known as biglia, in France bilhard, in Spain virlota and in England "ball-yard." An illustration of ground billiards is in Sports and Pastimes of England by James Strutt, created around 1344. But if the image dates to 1344, the game it illustrates could be considerably older. Illustrations dating from the 14C have been found showing "ground billiards" in action - it has similarities to croquet. Manuscripts have been located documenting the equipment used for the game at the time. The earliest of these dates is around 1300 AD. It appears, however, that some people continued to play "ground billiards" in its changing forms as late as the 17C. 

Ground billiards of the 1300's was actually very similar to golf and croquet. Variations of the game were probably as numerous as the towns in which it was played. Ground Billiards was played on a small outdoor court with a hoop at one end and an upright stick at the other. This combination billiard, golf, & croquet-esque pastime required players to strike balls around the court with maces.The object was generally to propel a ball, through obstacles, to a predetermined destination. The equipment was often primitive, but functional: a ball (sizes varied, often one per player); a propelling device (maces—elongated sticks, curved and flattened at the end—were widely used by the 1300's); and a variety of posts, pegs, cones and arches, to be struck, knocked down or passed through.

Many of the cities of this period had been designed to protect their inhabitants from hostile attacks. Many were built on plateaus and surrounded by walls. This greatly reduced the areas where ball games requiring a great distance could be played. Consequently, many games became miniaturized, played in small enclosures or courtyards.
Ground Billiards

Ground Billiards and Lunch - Beugelen, pumping through the bracket German perhaps 1650s

Sunday, November 20, 2016

1597 Ship's crew plays Golf

Beugelen colf in the open air next to a tavern, about 1644 painted by David Teniers the Younger II (1610-1690).

Before an inn, merry-making and playing a game of colf or bracing by Jan Havicksz. Steen (1626-1679).

In 1597, the crew of Willem Barentsz played "colf" during their stay at Nova Zembla, as recorded by Gerrit de Veer in his diary:
Den 3. April wast moy claer weder met een n.o. wint ende stil, doen maeckten wy een colf toe om daer mede te colven, om also onse leden wat radder te maeckten, daer wy allerley middelen toe zochten. Translation: (The 3rd of April the weather was nice and clear with a north-easterly wind and quiet, then we made a colf [club] to play colf with, and thus make our limbs more loose, for which we sought every means)

Peasants to the bracing colf at an inn in a landscape, attributed to David Teniers the Younger II (1610-1690).

Saturday, November 19, 2016

No Golf within the 1387 Brielle city walls

Boulegrin with the king Thuys. manufactured by Romeyn de Hooghe (Amsterdam 1645-1708 Haarlem)

In the 14C, colf was a "long game" played in the city streets, courtyards, and other open areas. In 1387, the regent of the county of Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut, Albrecht of Bavaria, sealed a charter for the city of Brielle, in which it was forbidden to play any game for money. One of the exceptions to this ordinance was "den bal mitter colven te slaen buten der veste" (to play the ball with a club outside the town walls). Two years later, in 1389, the regent Albrecht offered the citizens of Haarlem a field called ‘De Baen’ (the course) to be used exclusively for playing games – especially colf – because these were too dangerous within the city walls.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Sports & Games - General History - British Cricket 14C -19C

Walter Hawkesworth Fawkesby (British artist, 1769-1825) The Boy with the Bat c. 1760

Cricket began as a children's game.  Presently, the earliest written evidence of the game of cricket in England is found in a 1598 court case concerning an ownership dispute over a plot of common land in Guildford, Surrey. A 59-year old coroner, John Derrick, testified that he & his school friends had played "creckett" on the site 50 years earlier, when they attended the Free School.  Derrick's account proves, that the game was being played in Surrey circa 1550.  The 1st reference to cricket being played as an adult sport was in 1611, when two men in Sussex were prosecuted for playing cricket on Sunday instead of going to church. In the same year, a dictionary defined cricket as a boys' game, suggesting that adult participation was a recent development.

Francis Cotes, (English painter, 1726-1770) 1766 Chales Collyer as a Boy with a Cricket Bat

After the Civil War ended in 1648, the new Puritan government clamped down on "unlawful assemblies," in particular the more raucous sports such as football. Their laws also demanded a stricter observance of the Sabbath. As the Sabbath was the only free time available to the lower classes, cricket's popularity may have waned during the Commonwealth, but it did flourish in public fee-paying schools such as Winchester & St Paul's. There is no printed evidence that Oliver Cromwell's regime banned cricket specifically, & there are references to it during the interregnum. Some believe that the nobility in general adopted cricket at this time through involvement in village games

Unknown artist after Louis-Philippe Boitard An Exact Representation of the Game of Cricket 1760 

Cricket thrived after the Restoration in 1660, attracting gamblers making large bets at this time. In 1664, the "Cavalier" Parliament passed the Gaming Act 1664 which limited stakes to £100, equivalent to about £13 thousand in present day terms. Cricket had grown into a significant gambling sport by the end of the 17C. There is a newspaper report of a "great match" played in Sussex in 1697 which was 11-a-side and played for high stakes of 50 guineas a side. With freedom of the press in 1696, cricket could be reported in the newspapers. During the 1st half of the 18C; however, press reports tended to focus on the betting rather than on the game.

 Unknown British artist, The Game of Cricket

The basic rules of cricket such as bat & ball, the wicket, pitch dimensions, overs, how out, etc. had developed as the game progressed. In 1728, the Duke of Richmond & Alan Brodick drew up Articles of Agreement to determine the code of practice in a particular game, & this became important to determining payment of stake money & distributing the winnings in gambling.  In 1744, the Laws of Cricket were codified, & amended in 1774. These laws stated that the principals shall choose from among the gentlemen present two umpires who shall absolutely decide all disputes. 

The game of cricket

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Poll by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, Massachusetts 1787.  

This book is intended for children in the new republic formed from the British American colonies.  Cricket & baseball had been played side by side in England, & both sports had been eagerly exported to the New World. Well into the 19C, cricket was a popular American game.  The first international cricket match was between the United States & Canada in 1840. In 1859, an England XI set sail for New Jersey to play a match against the Americans before a crowd of 24,000 (England won). But ever since the revolution, America had begun to break free from Britain’s gravitational pull. And so baseball, losing popularity in England, had already started its slow ascent to pre-eminence. By the end of the 19C, there was no debate as to which sport had won American hearts.

 Richard Heber by John Singleton Copley c. 1782

In the 1800s, The Level was the only public space in Brighton to allow ball games.  George Henry Phillips (fl. mid 19th Century) - Colored mezzotint after William Drummond & Charles J. Basebe "The Cricket Match between Sussex and Kent at Brighton"

Solomon Alexander Hart (British artist, 1806-1881) The Cricketers, Southsea

Samuel Bough (British artist, 1822-1878) Cricket Match at Edenside, Carlisle 1844

Robert Finlay McIntyre (British artist, 1846-1906) The Cricket Match, Gospel Oak Fields 1885

John Westell (British artist) Tooting Common with a Cricket Match 1887

 19C Cricket Match

19C Cricket Match

John Robertson Reid (British artist, 1851-1926) A Country Cricket Match.

16C Elites celebrate Spring in a Formal Garden

Gardens were the scene of outdoor amusements & recreation in the centuries before public pleasure gardens blossomed on both sides of the Atlantic. For recreation, elites enjoyed promenading, especially in a public place, to meet or to be seen & admired by others.

Attributed to Louis de Caullery (Dutch-Flemish artist, 1555-1622) Allegory of the Month of April 

Louis de Caullery (Dutch-Flemish artist, 1555-1622) also known as Luis de Koller, Luis de Kaulleri, Louis de Coulery, specialized in genre, allegory, architecture, & landscape painting.  Like many Flemish artists of the period, he had traveled to & worked in Italy. A circle of like-minded artists gathered around him in Antwerp, painting scenes of banquets, balls, carnivals, & other celebrations often in gardens. The architecture & the parterres of the gardens are precisely drawn, often in skillfully telescoped perspective.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sports & Games - Skittles or Nine Pins on Ice at Frost Fairs on the frozen Thames

1608 An account of the Frost Fair shows Nine Pins in Lower Right Corner 

Saturday Magazine reported in 1835, that"The next remarkable frost recorded is that of 1608."  It began on the 8th of December, & continued until the 15th; a thaw then ensued until the 22nd, when it began "againe to freeze violently, so as diverse persons went halfe way over the Thames upon the ice; & the 30th of December... then all sorts of men, women, & children, went boldly upon the ice in most parts; some shot at prickes; others bowled & danced, with other variable pastimes, by reason of which concourse of people, there wore many that set up boothes & standings upon the ice, as fruit-sellers, victuallers, that sold beere & wine, shoomakers, & a barber's tent, &c."  In these tents were fires... Unlicensed gambling, drinking & dancing were held at the fairs, along with stalls selling food & drink, skittle alleys & fairground rides." 

1677 Abraham Danielsz. Hondius (Dutch-born English artist, 1625–1691) The Frozen Thames and a Detail. The ice in 1677 was probably a little too uneven to set up a Skittles Alley.

Paintings & prints of the Thames Frost fairs shows that Nine Pins and Skittle Alleys were consistently part of the entertainments on the ice, when the Thames froze over. The River Thames Frost Fairs were held at London in several winters between the 17C - 19C, when the river froze. From 1400 to 1814, there are records of more than 2 dozen winters during which the Thames were recorded to have frozen solid at London. The Thames had frozen over several times in the 16C. Reportedly King Henry VIII traveled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536; and Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice frequently during 1564, to "shoot at marks," while small boys played football on the ice.  

1683-4 Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1683, during the 'Little Ice Age'

Frost Fairs were staged on the frozen Thames in 1608, 1677, 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789, and 1814. From 1400 to the early 19C, over 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen over at London, included: 1408, 1435, 1506, 1514, 1537, 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, 1655, 1663, 1666, 1677, 1684, 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, 1776, 1788, 1795, & 1814. 

1683-4 Frost Fair Wonders on the Deep; Or, The most Exact Description of the Frozen River of Thames. Skittles is being played on the left-hand side.

During many of these, "Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; & the people, both men & women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London." 

1683-4 Frost Fair (1685) as painted by an unknown artist.

Long before 1400, the Thames was freezing into solid ice.  One of the earliest accounts of the Thames freezing over comes from A.D. 250 when it was said to have frozen hard for nine weeks. In A.D. 923 the river iced over & wheeled traffic transported goods along its length for thirteen weeks. 

1683-4 (after) Thomas Wyke, Frost Fair on the River Thames near the Temple

In the reign of Stephen, in the year 1150, "after a very wet summer there was in December so great a frost that horses and carriages crossed it upon the ice as safely as upon the dry ground, and that the frost lasted till the following month of March." 

1683-4 (after) Thomas Wyke, Frost Fair on the River Thames near the Temple. Detail

Again in 1281, the Thames was frozen over, and that on the breaking up of the ice 5 of the arches of old London Bridge were carried away. 

1683-4 Frost Fair Game of Nine Pins in Lower Left Quadrant

"In 1434, the Thames was so strongly frozen over, that merchandise and provisions brought into the mouth of the river were obliged to be unladen, and brought by land to the city." 

1683-4 Souvenir (from a print shop set up on the ice) of Erra Paters' Prophesy of Frost Faire 1683-4 (circa 1760)  Pater was the pseudonym of the astrologer prognosticator William Lilly (1602–1681), who had foretold of this frost. - Houghton Library, Harvard University

In 1515, too, carriages passed over on the ice from Lambeth to Westminster. At this time it is said the frost and snow were so severe that 5 arches of London Bridge were "borne downe and carried away with the streame." 

1683-4 Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs Abraham Hondius shows booths, coaches, sledges, sedan-chairs and a game of nine-pins in front of the tents on the right-hand side.

On the 21st of December, 1564, during the prevalence of a hard frost, diversions on ice at the Thames, some play football, and others "shoot at marks." The courtiers from the palace at Whitehall mixed with the citizens, and tradition reports that Queen Elizabeth herself walked upon the ice. 

1715 Frost Fair from near Temple Stairs, with Old London Bridge in the background. Nine Pin Playing at letter A

In 1620 a great frost enabled the Londoners to carry on all manner of sports and trades upon the river.

1715 Frost Fair Mrs. Aliff Tuffton (1716) Souvenir  (from a print shop set up on the ice) - Houghton Library, Harvard University

The 1835 Saturday Magazine reported, that during the reign of William Rufus (c 1056-1100), was recorded a frost "whereby," in the words of an old chronicler, "the great streams [of England] were congealed in such a manner that they could draw two hundred horsemen & carriages over them; whilst at their thawing, many bridges, both of wood & stone, were borne down, & divers water-mills were broken up, & carried away."  

1739-40 Frost Fair London Bridge Nine Pins in the Lower Left Hand Corner

The Thames reportedly froze again in 1114, for 4 weeks

1739-40 Frost Fair You that walk here, and do design to tell (1740) Souvenir (from a print shop set up on the ice) - Houghton Library, Harvard University

The History & Survey of London &; Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, 1806, reports "We are told that in the year 1150 the summer proved so extremely wet, that a dearth almost equal to famine ensued ; & the winter of this year was remarkable for a severe frost, which commenced on the ninth of December, & continued till the beginning of March, during a great part of which time, the Thames was frozen so hard as to admit of carts & other carriages passing over the ice."

1739-40 Frost Fair - Great frost 1739 Jan Griffier

G H Birch reported in his 1903 From London on Thames, that "in 1282 there was a most terrible frost, the like of which had never been known. The pressure of ice heaped up against [London] Bridge, & unable to pass through from the narrowness of the arches of the bridge, carried away five arches of it, & rendered it, of course, impassable for the time until they were rebuilt."  One eyewitness wrote that "From this Christmas till the Purification of Our Lady, there was such a frost & snow, as no man living could remember the like; wherethrough, five arches of London Bridge, & all Rochester Bridge, were borne downe & carried away by the streame; & the like happened to many bridges in England. And, not long after, men passed over the Thames, between Westminster & Lambeth, dry-shod."

1740 Frost Fair Souvenir (from a print shop set up on the ice) Mehetabel Lovell (1740) Houghton Library, Harvard University

A possible "frost fair" occurred in the winter of 1309-10.  Several London Bridge arches were damaged by ice during a severe winter. The Thames was frozen. That a likely frost-fair was held on the Thames in London can be inferred by the statements in some chronicles that "sport" was held on the river plus a few reports of people walking across the Thames. According to contemporary reports "dancing took place around a fire built on the ice & a hare was coursed (chased) on the frozen waterway."

1739-40 Frost Fair. Showing skaters, a number of coffee houses, and a printing booth producing souvenirs were erected on the ice.

In the winter of 1338-39, hard frost started in December & lasted for 12 weeks in London & to the South. Also, from the Annals of Dublin"So great a frost was this year (AD 1338) from the 2d of December to the 10th of February, that the river Liffey was frozen over so hard as to bear dancing, running, playing foot-ball, & making fires to broil herrings on. The depth of the snow that fell during this frost, is almost incredible; yet it is agreed, that such a season was never before known in Ireland."

1789 Frost Fair London by G H Birch

The severe winter of 1407-08 affected most of Europe & is regarded by climatologists as one of the most difficult on record. The frost lasted for 15 weeks & people were able to walk across the frozen Thames. According to Ian Currie (a noted authority on historical weather events), "one of the most snowy & was of outstanding duration." In Europe, ice in the Baltic had allowed traffic between the Scandinavian nations, & wolves had passed over the ice from Norway to Denmark.  

1814  Frost Fair held on the Thames. Gentlemen playing Nine Pins in the center front. 

In 1410, once again the river froze solid for fourteen weeks & was turned into a roadway to ease congestion in the city.  The 1410 Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London recorded that "Thys yere was the grete frost & ise & the most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, & it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men might in dyvers places both goo & ryde over the Temse."

1814  Frost Fair George Thompson, “A view of the river Thames” Two games of Nine Pins are depicted on the mid left-hand segment of the image.

The winter of 1434-35 was perhaps one of the most harsh in the last millennium.  In this winter, the Thames was frozen from below London Bridge to Gravesend. Sea-borne goods were landed at the mouth of the river & taken over the ice into London. A frost from the latter part of November continued to at least St. Valentine's Day (14th February). There are reports of "intense frost" in Scotland in the winter of 1434-5 & a note that the Thames was frozen sufficient to bear wagons in the same year. The 1806 History & Survey of London & Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, noted that "In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th of November, & held till the 10th of February, following ; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes & provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, & brought by land to the city."

1814  Frost Fair last Thames Frost Fair

In 1506, a frost froze the Thames throughout January; observers reported that horses & carts could cross the frozen river. 

1814  Frost Fair London Bridge by Luke Clenell 1781-1840

The Thames froze again in January 1514-15, & carts crossed from Lambeth to Westminster. The Chronicles of the Grey Friars of London noted "Such a sore snowe & a frost that men myght goo with carttes over the Temse & horses, & it lastyd tylle Candelmas. "The History & Survey of London & Its Environs from the Earliest Period by B Lambert, 1806 states that "Fabian says, that, in 1515, the Thames was frozen so hard that carriages of all sorts passed between Westminster & Lambeth upon the ice." Reportedly in January of 1517, the Thames froze again.

1814 Frost Fair View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf when frozen Monday 31st January to Saturday 5th February 1814

In 1536-37, A frost caused the Thames to freeze in London: King Henry VIII, with his queen (Jane Seymour...who was to die late in the year 1537, after giving birth to the future Edward VI) rode on the ice-bound river from London (probably Whitehall) to Greenwich.  Another severe, prolonged frost set in 7th December 1564. The court of Elizabeth I indulged in sports on the ice at Westminster. Football & nine pins were played on the ice. In 1564-65, Holinshed noted that "the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year's eve people went over & along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster.  On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, & on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge & Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods & high waters, that bare down bridges & houses, & drowned many people in England."

1814 Frost Fair with Game of Nine Pins on the left side 

In the winter of 1629-21, a Frost Fair was held on the Frozen Thames. In 1634-35, a severe winter froze the Thames. In parts of England, a frost lasted from the 15th December 1634 until 11th February 1635, with frequent snowfall. The winter of 1648-49 saw another frost which froze the Thames. Between winter 1662-63 to winter 1666-67, three of the five winters in this period were cold, with severe frosts. It is claimed that skating was introduced into England during the winter of 1662/63 and that the King (Charles II) watched this new sport on the frozen Thames.

1814 Frost Fair with Nine Pins on the ice

The Frost Fair of 1683-84, was well recorded in both words & images. In a curious volume of London ballads and broadsides in the British Museum is one entitled "Great Britain's Wonder, or London's Admiration," being "a true representation of a prodigious frost which began about the beginning of December, 1683, and continued till the 4th day of February following. It held on the Thames with such violence that men and beasts, coaches and carts, went as frequently thereon as boats were wont to pass before. There was also "a street of booths built from the Temple to Southwark, where were sold all sorts of goods imaginable, namely, cloaths, plate, earthenware, meat, drink, brandy, tobacco, and a hundred sorts of commodities not here inserted: it being the wonder of this present age and a great consternation to all the spectators."...The street of booths holds out all sorts of signs, just like the houses in the Strand. There are men and boys making slides, skating, and sledging in all directions; some of the sledges are of the ordinary type, like the low brewer's dray drawn by heavy horses; some are more artistic, made up like gondolas; some are apparently genuine boats, with sails; in 2 places are carriages drawn by a single horse, and just opposite the Temple Stairs a bull is being baited. Gallants in the fashionable dresses of the day are promenading, with wigs and swords...In a corner are five men playing at skittles; one of them is smoking a pipe." 

1814 Frost Fair with Nine Pins

On the 1st of January, 1684, John Evelyn wrote in his diary that whole streets of booths were set out on the Thames, and that he crossed the river on the ice on foot upon the 9th in order to dine with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth, and again, in his coach, from Lambeth to the Horseferry at Millbank, upon the 5th of February. On the 6th he observes that the ice had "now become so thick as to beare not onely streetes of boothes in which they roasted meate, and had divers shops of wares quite acrosse as in a towne, but coaches, carts, and horses passed over...By the 16th the number of persons keeping shops on the ice had so greatly increased that Evelyn says, "the Thames was filled with people and tents selling all sorts of wares as in the City;" and by the 24th the varieties and festivities of a fair appear to have been completely established. "The frost," he states, "continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with boothes in formal streets, all sorts of trades, and shops furnish'd and full of commodities, even to a printing presse. As part of the festivities, printers set up shop on the ice to sell engraved & letterpressed sheets of paper as keepsakes. Evelyn also notes that "coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires, to and fro, as in the streetes: sleds [sledges], sliding with skeetes [skates], a bullbaiting, horse and coach races, puppet-plays and interludes, cookes, tippling, and other lewd places; so that it seem'd to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water." The Duke of York (James II.) writes to his son-in-law—and supplanter-William of Orange, on January 4, 1683–4: "The weather is so very sharp and the frost so great that the river here is quite frozen over, so that for these three days past people have gone over it in several places, and many booths are built on it between Lambeth and Westminster, where they roast meat and sell drink." The pastimes of throwing at a cock, sliding & skating, roasting an ox, foot-ball, skittles, pigeon-holes, cups & balls, &c., are represented in 1683-4 prints being carried on in various parts of the frozen river.

Post Script: The freezing of the Thames is thought to have been aided or even caused by the structure of Old London Bridge (1176-1825) after 1176. The bridge was built with 19 arches & each of the 20 piers was supported by large breakwaters called "starlings." The old London Bridge acted as a weir & more or less prevented tides & salt water from passing that point. When chunks of ice got caught between them, it slowed the flow of the river above the bridge, making it more likely to freeze over. When the New London Bridge opened in 1831, it only had 5 arches. Once this structure was in place, the Thames never froze over in the London area again - despite temperatures dropping to -20C at times in a notoriously cold winter of 1895.