Tuesday, November 17th, 2015...11:27 am

Printers on Ice

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EB7.A100.740m(detail)The Thames’ frost fairs of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries are well-documented (as well as featured in two Dr. Who episodes). They occurred during Britain’s Little Ice Age, when winters were cold enough to freeze over parts of the Thames. During them, when the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough, Londoners would take to the river for travel, trade and amusement in the form of public festivals and fairs. Among the more outlandish occurrences on the ice were bull-baiting, the roasting of whole oxen, the erecting of taverns, games of football, horse-drawn coaches, and even visiting elephants. One highly entertaining activity was the printing and selling of keepsakes:

There may you also this hard Frosty Winter,
See on the Rocky Ice a Working PRINTER,
Who hopes by his own Art to reap some gain,
Which he perchance does think he may obtain.

Great Britain’s wonder, or, London’s admiration.
[London] : Printed by M. Haly, and J. Millet …, 1684.

The men who dragged their presses onto the ice and produced these keepsakes were a competitive lot, each trying to offer the most enticing product. Some of the sheets were engraved, others were letterpress. Verses were borrowed liberally from one another, apt woodcuts added to the popular appeal, and blank spaces would be filled in with the names of individual recipients. Given the ephemeral nature of these bits of paper, it is not surprising that few survive. Of the six recently acquired by Houghton, five were previously unrecorded.


Erra Paters Prophesy or Frost Faire 1683/4 (ca. 1760) EB75.A100.760e

This is a primitive etched copy of a souvenir of the fair held during the Great Frost of 1683/1684. The Thames is frozen solid with “Erra Pater” in the foreground. Pater was the pseudonym of the astrologer prognosticator William Lilly (1602-1681), who had foretold of this frost before haunting it. Behind him can be seen the many stalls erected on the ice, people skating, a sheep roasting on a spit, and a bull being baited.

Mrs. Aliff Tuffton … (1716) Houghton EB7.A100.716m2

Mrs. Aliff Tuffton (1716) Houghton EB7.A100.716m2

The jolly verse that begins “Where little Wherries once dud use to ride …” was set by multiple printers during the 1715/1716 Frost Fair. In this example, the buyer’s name – Mrs. Aliff [i.e. Aliss] Tuffton – was set at the top. The portrait above of Queen Anne memorializes the monarch who had died in 1714.

Thomas Gutteridge. The new bridge: a poem (1739 or 1740). Houghton EB7.G9878.739n

Thomas Gutteridge. The new bridge: a poem (1739 or 1740). Houghton EB7.G9878.739n

Thomas Gutteridge was a Nonconformist who knew how to take advantage of an opportunity when he saw one. The Frost Fair of 1739/1740 proved a useful vehicle for distributing his religious message – and just so that no one misunderstood his meaning, he adds an explanation at the foot of his poem that “the word BRIDGE here is a Metaphor”.

Mehetabel Lovell … (1740). Houghton EB7.A100.740m

Mehetabel Lovell (1740). Houghton EB7.A100.740m

Photograph by Mike Peel via Wikipedia.

Photograph by Mike Peel via Wikipedia.

Still found today under the Southwark Bridge is an illustrated freize on five slate slabs memorializing the frost fairs. They are the work 19th century sculptor Richard Kindersley; the origins of his slightly longer version of the poem is unknown:

Behold the liquid Thames now frozen o’er
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groat
Here you may see Beef Roasted on the Spit
And for your Money you may taste a bit
There you may print your Name, tho’ cannot write,
Cause num’d with Cold: ‘Tis done with great Delight
And lay it by, that Ages yet to come
May see what Things upon the Ice were done

You that walk here, and do design to tell. (1740) Houghton EB7.A100.740y

You that walk here, and do design to tell. (1740) Houghton EB7.A100.740y

In 1859, William Hone, in his Every-day Book, informed his readers that the above rhyme was reprinted during the 1814 Frost Fair at the sign of the “Orange Boven”. This sign is a reference to Holland’s recent freedom from French dominion. Could the printer of this sheet have had a premonition?

[Thanks to Karen Nipps, Head of the Rare Book Team, for contributing this post.]

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