Category Archives: Thames

Frost Fair Thames

Blanket Fair

This woodcut depicts a Blanket Fair on the frozen Thames in 1684. The detail is lovely. Click on the image to enlarge

The ballad which follows describes the Blanket Fair itself:

BLANKET-FAIR, OR THE History of Temple Street. Being a Relation of the merry Pranks plaid on the River Thames during the great Frost.
To the Tune of Packington’s Pound.

Come listen a while (though the Weather be cold)
In your Pockets & Plackets your Hands you may hold.
I’ll tell you a Story as true as ’tis rare,
Of a River turn’d into a Bartholmew Fair.
Since old Christmas last
There has bin such a Frost,
That the Thimes has by half the whole Nation bin crost.
O Scullers I pity your fate of Extreams,
Each Land-nan is now become free of the Thames.

‘Tis some Lapand Acquaintance of Conjurer Oates,
That has ty’d up your Hands & imprison’d your Boats.
You know he was ever a friend to the Crew
Of all that to Admiral Iames has bin true.
Where Sculls once did Row
Men walk to and fro,
But e’re four months are ended ’twill hardly be so.
Should your hopes of a thaw by this weather be crost,
Your Fortunes vould soon be as hard as the Frost.

In Roast Beef and Brandy much money is spent
In Booths made of Blankets that pay no Ground-rent,
With old fashiond Chimneys the Rooms are secur’d,
And the Housed from danger of Fire ensur’d.
The chief place you meet
Is call’d Temple Street,
If you do not believe me, then you may go see’t.
From the Tempe the Students do thither resort,
Tho were always great Patrons of Revels and sport.

The Citizen comes with his Daughter or Wife,
And swears he never saw such a sight in his life:
the Prentices starv’d at home for want of Coals
catch them a heat do flock thither in shoals;
While the Country Squire
Does stand and admire
The wondrous conjunction of Water and Fire.
it comes an arch Wag, a young Son of a Whore,
lays the Squires head where his heels were before.

The Rotterdam Dutchman with fleet cutting Scates,
To pleasure the crowd shews his tricks and his feats,
Who like a Rope-dancer (for all his sharp Steels)
His Brains and activity lie in his Heels.
Here all things like fate
Are in slippery state,
From the Sole of the Foot to the Crown of the Pate.
While the Rabble in Sledges run giddily round,
And nought but a circle of folly is found.

Here Damsels are handed like Nymphs in the Bath,
By Gentlemen-Ushers with Legs like a Lath;
They slide to a Tune, and cry give me your Hand,
When the tottering Fops are scarce able to stand.
Then with fear and with care
They arrive at the Fair,
Where Wenches fell Glasses and crakt Earthen ware;
To shew that the World, and the pleasures it brings,
Are made up of brittle and slippery things.

A Spark of the Bar with his Cane and his Muff,
One day went to treat his new rigg’d Kitchinstuff,
Let slip from her Gallant, the gay Damsel try’d
(As oft she had done in the Country) to slide,
In the way lay a stump,
That with a dam’d thump,
She broke both her Shoostrings and crippl’d her Rump.
The heat of her Buttocks made such a great thaw,
She had like to have drowned the man of the Law.

All you that are warm both in Body and Purse,
I give you this warning for better or worse,
Be not there in the Moonshine, pray take my advice,
For slippery things have bin done on the Ice
Maids there have been said
To lose Maiden-head,
And Sparks from full Pockets gone empty to Bed·
If their Brains and their Bodies had not bin too warm,
‘Tis forty to one they had come to less harm.

You may also enjoy The air was more severely piercing than ever and Cold doings in London

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Biography Poetry Thames

John Taylor – Water Poet

Today’s post is about the little-known poet John Taylor, who worked as a ferryman in London, rowing people back and forth across the Thames to the theatres on Bankside.

Taylor was born in Gloucester in 1578, and in the early 1590s he moved to London and became apprenticed to a waterman in Southwark. As well as ferrying passengers across the Thames, a vital service since there was only one bridge in London at this time, the Watermen’s Company also supplied men for the navy in times of war. In 1596, Taylor took part in Essex’s expedition to Cadiz. He also may have been at Ostend during the siege of 1601-4. He completed his apprenticeship in 1597, and in 1612 he married. The identity of his wife is uncertain, but she may have been known as Abigail Miles. The couple settled on Bankside in London and lived there until 1643. In 1605, Taylor was appointed Bottleman at the Tower of London. The job essentially involved Taylor rowing out to the incoming ships transporting wine, and demanding two large bottles as payment due to the Lieutenant of the Tower.

Taylor’s natural wit and polite manner, as well as his charming personality, meant he stood out from the rough men working the Thames. He often conversed with the courtiers he ferried back and forth, and in 1613, Viscount Haddington recommended Taylor become one of the King’s Watermen; a liveried group which served the crown on ceremonial business. Taylor also became spokesman for the Watermen’s Company on official business, and in 1614 he pressed a suit to the King on their behalf, protesting against the building of new theatres north of the river. To relocate the theatres would be a serious blow to the Watermen’s trade, since they relied on the huge numbers of visitors crossing the river to the Globe and other theatres on Bankside for their trade. Despite support from Francis Bacon, the King ignored the Watermen’s protestations.

Taylor’s strong links with the Bankside theatres meant he was in continual contact with playwrights, poets and actors. As a result he developed a love of books and writing. In 1612, he published his first collection of poetry, The Sculler.


To the whole kennell of AntiChrists hounds, Priests, friers, monks, and Iesuits, mastiffs, mongrells, Islands, Spanniells, blood-hounds, bobtailetike, or foysting-hound: the Sculler sends greeting.

Curse, exorcize, with beads, with booke, & bell
Poluted shauelings: rage and doe your worst:
Use conjurations till your bellies burst,
With many a Nigromanticke mumbling spell,
I feare you not, nor all your friends that fell
With Lucifer: ye damned dogs that durst
Devise that thundring treason most accurst,
Whose like before was never hatchd in hell:
Halfe men, halfe devils, who never dreamd of good,
To you from faire and sweetly sliding Thames,
A popomasticke Sculler war proclaimes,
As to the suckers of imperiall blood.
An Anti-Jesuit Sculler with his pen,
Defies your Babell Beast, and all his den.

In The Sculler, Taylor makes various derisive comments about his fellow writers, including Thomas Coryate, famous for his Crudities published in 1609. This led to a bitter pamphlet war. In 1614, he became involved in another conflict, this time with William Fennor. The two arranged a contest at the Hope theatre, but Fennor failed to turn up, and the packed house all but rioted against Taylor in their disappointment. In addition to personal verse, Taylor also wrote commendatory poetry on public events, such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613. He counted many of the well-known writers of the time among his friends, including Samuel Daniel, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Samuel Rowlands.

Despite this illustrious company, Taylor failed to achieve recognition as a poet. He embarked on several voyages, which he documented in print, and continued to work as a Waterman. In 1625, he was one of the royal wherrymen to escort the new queen, Henrietta Maria, to Oxford to escape the plague. However, with the disintegration of Charles I’s rule, Taylor became something of a political commentator. He wrote a series of polemical pamphlets defending the episcopal church and satirising the radicals; these pamphlets

were designed to boost morale rather than convince the uncommitted, and the tone was jaunty and confident. Taylor was more concerned to establish appropriate images for the king and his enemies than plunge into the details of the issues at stake, largely beyond him and many of his readers. He presented the king’s war as a defensive struggle, with Charles a good protestant upholding the established church and his traditional prerogatives against hypocritical and aggressive parliamentary enemies.

Taylor’s last years were spent in poverty. With no royal court, and the Watermen’s Company in the hands of his enemies, he turned his hand to inn keeping, and by 1647, he was running the Crown alehouse near Covent Garden. He continued to supplement his income with published poetry, and made several further trips which he documented in print. However failing health finally overcame him in 1653, and he was buried on 5th December in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

Taylor was never afforded serious recognition as a poet, but his flair for literary entrepreneurship ensured he was a much more prosperous writer than many of his contemporaries, and he enjoyed a successful literary career which spanned over fifty years.

Source: Bernard Capp, DNB.

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Custom Death Thames

Cold doings in London

These snippets come from a tract entitled The great frost. Cold doings in London (1608). As a result of a severe winter in 1607-8 the river Thames in London froze. This account takes the form of a dialogue between two friends, who discuss the city’s reaction to the big freeze, and some of the fesitivities which occured on the frozen river.

The Thames began to put on his Freeze-coote about a week before Christmas, and hath kept it on till now, this latter end of January. This cold breakfast being given to the Cittie, and the Thames growing more & more hard harted, youthes and boyes were the first Merchant venturers that set out to discover these cold Landes upon the River; and the first path that was beaten forth, to passe to the Bank-Side with out going over Bridge or by Boat, was about Cold-Harbour, and in those places neere the Bridge.

Men, women, and children walked over, and up and downe in such companies that verily I believe, and I dare almost sweare it, the one half of the people in the Citie have been seene going on the Thames. The Gentlewoman that trembles to passe over a Bridge in the field, doth here walke boldly; the Citizens wife that lookes pale when she sits in a boate for feare of drowning, thinkes that here shee treades as safe now as in her parlour. Of all ages, of all professions, this is the common path: it is the roade way betweene London and Westminster, and betweene South-Warke and London.

But there were dangers too:

some have fallen in up to the knees, others to their middle, others to the arme-pittes, yea, and some have been ducked over head and eares, yet have crawled out like drowned Rats, while others have suncke to the bottome that never rose againe to the top, and they had a cold bed to lye in.

The friends relate the story of two boys, chasing birds on the frozen river: running to catch a sea gull:

one stumbled forward, his head slipt into a deepe hole, and there was hee drownd; the other in his haste slipt backwards, by that meanes he saved his [own] life.

And there is the sobering tale of

a poore fellow likewise having heated his body with drinke, thought belike to coole it on the water, but comming to walke on the Ice, his head was too heavy for his heeles, so that downe he fell, and there presently died.

But the dangers didn’t stop the merriment.
Thirst you for Beere, Ale, or for victualls, there you may buy it, and you may tell another day how you dined upon the Thames. Are you colde with going over? You shall, ere you come to the midst of the River, spie some ready with pannes of coales to warme your fingers. If you want fruite after you have dined, there stand Costermongers to serve you. And thus do people leave their houses and the streetes, turning the godliest River in the whole Kingdome into the broadest streete to walke in.
For more on London’s freezing winters see here
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