Southwark in Winter

by Emma Sweeney and Lisa Soverall

Records show that between the 15th and early 19th centuries the River Thames in London was able to freeze over completely. This only happened on average about one year in ten and London’s inhabitants saw it as a great excuse for a party. But why doesn’t the Thames Freeze any more?

A view of London Bridge in 1677 by Abraham Hondius

A view of the old London Bridge in 1677 by Abraham Hondius

In addition to changes to the climate, there were several factors that contributed to the freezing of the Thames.  Firstly, as ice blocks formed and floated down the river they would become wedged in the arches of the old London Bridge (shown above). The spacing was much narrower than in later versions of the bridge. This blockage would then cause the flow of the river to slow and freeze more easily.

The new bridge, built in 1831 had much wider arches.

The new bridge, built in 1831 had much wider arches

Another factor to consider is that the stretch of the Thames that flows through London was wider, shallower and therefore slower than today. The Victoria and Chelsea embankments, which were built in the 19th century made the river deeper and narrower, increasing the speed of flow and preventing it from freezing. Also, the increased size of London has led to an urban heat island effect, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. This keeps the temperature high.

Finally, the tributaries that fed the Thames, like the Tyburn,  the Fleet and Earl’s Sluice in Rotherhithe were all restricted to underground culverts as London developed. This reduced the influx of ice.

So the Frost Fairs are no more, but fortunately we have lots of images and resources in our collections at Southwark local History Library and Archive to show us how this tradition evolved over the Centuries.

1564 – 65 

London Bridge 1565

Artist’s impression of festivities under old London Bridge, 1564-65

‘People went over and alongst the Thames on the ise from London Bridge to Westminster. Some plaied at the foot-ball as boldlie there as if it had beene on the drie land’
[Raphael Holinshed]

Contemporary accounts of this winter are difficult to come by. Walter Thornbury gives the following second hand account in Old and New London (1878):

‘A hard frost set in on the 21st of December, 1564. Diversions on the Thames included football and shooting at marks. The courtiers from the Palace of Whitehall mixed with the citizens, and tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth herself walked upon the ice…

…On the night of the 3rd of January however, it began to thaw, and on the 5th there was no ice to be seen on the river.’

1607 – 08

The river showed not now, neither shows it yet, like a river, but like a field; where archers shoot at pricks, while others play football. It is a place of mastery where some wrestle and some run…’
[Cold doings at London attributed to Thomas Dekker]

1607–08 saw the first proper frost fair with a tent city on the Thames. In Thomas Dekker’s dialogue Cold doings at London, a citizen of London describes the spectacle to a visiting countryman:

‘Men, women and children walked over and up and down in such companies; that I verily believe and I dare almost swear it, the one half, if not three parts of the people in the city have been seen going on the Thames.’

London Bridge 1607

Old London Bridge, c.1610. The narrow arches were easily clogged with ice, allowing the river to freeze over

1683 – 84

‘Behold the wonder of the this present age
A famous river now becomes a stage’
[Anon]

London Bridge 1683

The Thames in full party mode. Can you spot Southwark Cathedral?

London diarist, John Evelyn described the range of amusements on the ice this year:

 Some of the stalls sold souvenirs like this glass and silver mug, possibly made in Southwark.‘…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’

Some of the stalls sold souvenirs like this glass and silver mug, possibly made in Southwark

1788 – 89

The Silver Thames was frozen o’er,
No difference ‘twixt the stream and shore,
The like no man hath seen before
Except he lived in days of yore’

No sooner had the Thames acquired a sufficient consistence that booths, turn-abouts &c. &c. were erected; the puppet shows, wild beast &c., were transported from every adjacent village; whilst the watermen, that they might draw their usual resources from the water broke in the ice close to the shore, and erected bridges, with toll-bars, to make every passenger pay a halfpenny for getting to the ice.’
[The London Chronicle, 1789]

A view of the Thames from Rotherhithe Stairs January 1789 by G. Samuel

A view of the Thames from Rotherhithe Stairs January 1789 by G. Samuel

1813 – 14: ‘The little ice age’

Behold the Thames is frozen o’er,
Which lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore;
Now different Arts and Pastimes here you see,
But PRINTING claims the Superiority
.’
[Anon]

Among the array of businesses that operated on the ice this year was the printing trade. Ten printing presses were in operation, turning out crude woodcut illustrations and ballads. The route from Blackfriars to the South bank was named ‘City Road’and at one of the many stalls ‘Lapland Mutton’ was on offer at a shilling a slice.

Charles Dickens, one of Southwark’s most famous residents, is responsible for the popular belief that it should always snow at Christmas thanks to A Christmas Carol. When the story was published in 1843 London was experiencing fairly mild winters, but as he wrote, Dickens was probably recollecting his early childhood in the 1810s, when Britain was experiencing the last of the ‘Little Ice Age.’ Six of his first nine Christmases were white and one of these fell in the winter of 1813-14, when the last Frost Fair was held on the Thames.  

London Bridge 1813

It was soon after this last fair that work began on a new London Bridge to allow for easier water flow. The selected design by John Rennie (who had designed both Southwark and Waterloo bridges) was completed by his sons George and John in 1831. The Thames in London has kept on flowing ever since.

In search of a ‘lost river’: walking the Earl’s Sluice from Walworth to Rotherhithe with the Walworth HAZ

by Walworth Heritage Action Zone Project Manager, Stephanie Ostrich

The Thames winds through the heart of London, fed by its many tributaries, streams and brooks. Though we cannot see many of these rivers today, they still flow beneath our homes, our streets, and our feet. They also leave tantalising traces on the surface that hint at the rushing ‘lost river’ below.

One such river is the Earl’s Sluice which runs from the heights of Ruskin Park to Rotherhithe and into the Thames. In July, the Walworth Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) and Southwark Council organised a guided walk of part of the Earl’s Sluice from Walworth Road/Camberwell Road to the Thames, based on the walk in Tom Bolton’s book London’s Lost Rivers: A Walkers Guide.

Our intrepid explorers began at the Camberwell Road entrance at Burgess Park: the former terminus of the old Grand Surrey Canal. The canal, built in the early 1800s, was a bustling hub of industry, moving goods from the factories and workshops of Walworth, Camberwell and Peckham to the docks at what is today Surrey Quays; it also ran parallel to the Earls’ Sluice and was our first clue on our search for our lost river. The canal was infilled in the 1970s, and now is highlighted by the straight path running through the centre of Burgess Park.

1. Burgess Park map

Figure 1. Burgess Park used to be a densely packed neighbourhood with housing and industrial buildings lining either side of the former Grand Surrey Canal. This modern map showing Burgess Park (in green) is overlain by a 1940s OS map. The Bridge to Nowhere in Burgess Park once crossed this canal. The Earl’s Sluice forms the parish boundary here. You can see hints of it in the oddly curved rear gardens of properties north of Albany Road. (© Layers of London)

The Earl’s Sluice once flowed as a river through the fields and marshes of south London; this natural feature made an excellent landmark and acted as a boundary along its length for several parishes and boroughs and was also the county boundary between Surrey and Kent. Another clue to its existence beneath our feet was found as we walked one street up, to Boundary Lane. Road names can be excellent clues to what once was here before.

2. Boundary Lane

Figure 2. The Earls’ Sluice once formed the boundary between several parishes and even counties. When the river was covered over, it became a street called Boundary Lane which is still the boundary between Camberwell and Walworth and the postcodes SE17 and SE5.

Up until the 18th century, when Walworth and the Old Kent Road were small villages surrounded by fields and orchards, the river flowed under a bridge at the Walworth Road/Camberwell Road here and turned east to the Thames. It then flowed under another bridge at Old Kent Road. This area was called ‘St Thomas a Watering,’ an important spot on the medieval pilgrimage route from Southwark to Canterbury, made in honour of Thomas a Becket.  It is also the first stop of the travellers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where they draw lots to decide who will tell the first tale on their journey, while their horses have a refreshing drink in the Earl’s Sluice. At a site near this spot stands a former pub and boxing hall called St Thomas a Becket – now a Vietnamese restaurant. The pub sign for St Thomas a Becket is still there, a memory of what was once here all those years ago.

3. Rocque 1761

Figure 3. Rocque’s map of 1761 shows bridges crossing the Earl’s sluice south of Walworth village and over the Old Kent Road at ‘St Thos Watering’s’

We walked east along Albany Road in search of more clues of the Earl’s Sluice. In the past, Londoners did not think about littering in the same way as we do today. An easy way of disposing of rubbish – and of poo – was to dump it into the nearby river which would wash it out to sea. Unfortunately years of this meant our rivers eventually became open sewers! By the 1830s and 40s much of the Earls’ Sluice was culverted – covered over with bricks – which was more sanitary and also meant the land could be used for building houses over it. In 1858, a very hot summer made the Thames, which was full of sewage, smell terrible! This became known as ‘The Big Stink’ and because of this, Victorian engineers like Joseph Bazelgette were hired to build large purpose-built sewers across London; this included our Earl’s Sluice, which because diverted into the Earl Main Sewer.

4. 1832

Figure 4. The Earl’s sluice is still open in 1832, running alongside Albany Road, in the bottom left corner of the map, (1832 Plan of London from the United Kingdom Newspaper)

5. 1840 map

Figure 5. By 1840, the Earl’s Sluice west of the Old Kent Road, under what is now the Aylesbury Estate, has disappeared underground (1840 Plan of London from the United Kingdom Newspaper 2nd ed)

So our poor Earls’ Sluice became a stinky sewer in the 19th century, but luckily for us the Victorian engineers left us some more clues to follow on our journey to the Thames. Large, green and functional, these stinkpipes jut out high above the street level and vent gas from the sewer below high into the air far away from our noses. As we walked along Albany Road, crossed Old Kent Road to Rolls Road, and turned onto Rotherhithe New Road and ventured to Surrey Quays we kept our eye out for this big green stinkpipes to make sure we were on the right track!

6. Stinkpipe

Figure 6. One of several tall green stinkpipes venting gases from the Earl’s Sluice and Earls Main Sewer which flows beneath them. This stinkpipe is on a busy junction at Rotherhithe New Road and there are many more along the Earls Main Sewer under Albany Road. These can be seen all over South London (photo © Walworth Society, Jeremy Leach)

The Earl’s Sluice eventually joins the river Peck (from which Peckham gets its name) in South Bermondsey. We followed it as it flows under Eugenia Road and Concorde Way, which is still a boundary between Southwark and Lewisham. At Oldfield Grove, we got a closer look at the Earl’s Sluice as it crosses over the railway line here in an unassuming pipe.

7. Pipe above ground

Figure 7. A glimpse of the Earl’s Sluice crossing the railway line in a pipe (photo © Walworth Society, Jeremy Leach)

At the end of Chilton Grove, we found the Earl Pumping Station, still helping to keep the Sluice and Earl Main Sewer flowing

We carefully ventured onto Plough Way, which was once known as Rogues Lane! Here off a side alley, we inspected two manhole covers. According to Tom Bolton, after rainy weather, you may hear the Earl’s Sluice rushing through the drains these cover.

9.-cover-e1567437508390.jpg

Figure 9. Another Earl’s sluice clue: two manhole covers showing where it still flows below out feet (photo © Walworth Society, Jeremy Leach)

10. 1761 map

Figure 10. In 1761, the Surrey Quays area was still open fields, with only one dock. The Earl’s Sluice ran next to Rogue Lane (now Plough Lane) flowing into the Thames near ‘The New Dock’

Our walk concluded at the South Dock, where the Earl’s Sluice meets the Thames. There is still a sewer outlet here on the foreshore of the Thames. Unfortunately we arrived at our destination 15 minutes before high tide so we could not inspect it ourselves. But it’s given us an excuse to return to the Earl’s Sluice in the future!

11. Thames

Figure 11. Where the Earl’s Sluice meets the Thames (photo © Walworth Society, Jeremy Leach)

Further reading:

London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide by Tom Bolton

londonslostrivers.com/earls-sluice

stinkpipes.blogspot.com

oldmapsonline.org

layersoflondon.org/map