London on Ice: The Georgian Frost Fairs Held on the River Thames

Thomas Wyke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States
Thomas Wyke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States

During the winter of 1563, the River Thames froze into a solid sheet of ice. Queen Elizabeth I, availing herself of royal privileges, ordered her servants to set up an archery field on the frosty surface and tried her hand shooting at marks. Reportedly, she was a very good shot.

The unusual setting for the sport was forged by average winter temperatures in Europe that were as much as 2°C lower than today. The cold caused London’s main waterway to freeze into a thick platform for spectacular winter festivals called frost fairs. “Of booths there were a great number, which were ornamented with streamers, flags, and signs, and in which there was a plentiful store of those favorite luxuries, gin, beer, and gingerbread,” wrote George Davis, a London printer.

Is his 1814 book Frostiana: or A History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, Davis provides a first-hand account of one of these lively winter carnivals, during which Londoners abandoned the city streets and stepped onto the ice to indulge in food, spirits, and fun. A hedonist atmosphere prevailed: Men huddled around roaring fires to spin yarns while women filed into drinking tents to sip grog. Sporting enthusiasts, like Queen Elizabeth I, showed up for hare hunting, nine-pin bowling, and football, while fiddlers belted out jigs. The frozen wonderland was set against a backdrop of the 19-arch London Bridge and the irresistible aroma of spit-roasted meats. The fair even had its own main street: “The grand mall or walk was from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge; this was named ‘The City Road,’ and lined on each side with tradesmen of all descriptions,” Davis wrote.

the Little Ice Age

Aert van der Neer, Metropolitan Museum of Art Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 // Public Domain

Frost fairs emerged during a nearly six-century-long cold spell—the Little Ice Age—when Europe experienced some of its coldest, harshest winters on record. The chill was brought on by a number of factors, including periods of low sunspot and volcanic activity in Indonesia that spewed sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere and cooled temperatures. George Adamson, a lecturer in geography at King's College London, says fluctuations in the jet stream may have also played a role. “Sometimes we get larger ‘meanders’ in the jet stream which mean that the whole of the UK is located to the north of it,” he tells Mental Floss. “Within these conditions, colder air is brought in from Siberia.”

The hydrodynamics of the river also played a role. The old London Bridge’s closely spaced piers thwarted water flow, causing ice to build up beneath its stone archways. The bridge had a dam-like effect on the river, allowing it to freeze to the point where it could handle the weight of thousands of people—and even an occasional elephant—during the winter carnivals.

“The floating masses of ice with which we have already stated the Thames to be covered, having been stopped by London Bridge, now assumed the shape of a solid surface over that part of the river which extends from Blackfriars Bridge to some distance below Three Crane Stairs, at the bottom of Queen-street, Cheapside,” Davis reported.

Scenes at a Frost Fair

When the frigid winters brought the usual rhythms of commerce to a halt, frost fairs presented an economic opportunity for tradespeople and artisans. With their river routes were temporarily blocked with winter ice, ferrymen earned a few pence by offering sledge rides to fairgoers and selling books, toys, and trinkets from market stalls. Barbers, fruit peddlers, and goldsmiths also set up their shops on the ice. Printers hauled out huge clunky presses to crank out personalized fair tickets, poems, and cards that played up the novelty of publishing atop a frozen river. One of the frosty commemoratives read:

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

The 1814 fair—the last known frost fair on record—might have been a welcome break for Londoners weary of hearing about Napoleon’s victories in Europe, according to historian Sean Munger. “London was not a fun place to live in 1814,” he tells Mental Floss. “The country was at war, the economy was depressed, and the king was insane. On top of that, there had been a terrible snow storm right before the fair that caused the city’s water mains to freeze and everything ground to a halt. The fair was kind of an escape where people could get away from their misery for a couple of days.”

The End of the Frost Fairs

As the 19th century wore on, it became less likely that thick ice would form on the Thames. The medieval London Bridge was torn down and replaced with a new one that allowed the river to flow more freely. In 1870, the Victoria Embankment was constructed along the Thames upstream from Blackfriars to relieve congestion on riverside streets, which narrowed the river and further increased its current. Along with milder winter temperatures, the new infrastructure made the frost fair of 1814 the last one on record.

Since then, the Thames has frozen over a few times—most recently in 1963. But whether frost fairs will ever return is anyone’s guess. As Earth’s climate continues to change and Europe gets warmer, the long-term outlook doesn’t look too cool.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, event though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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