1740 River Thames frost fair mementoes up for auction

By Rod Minchin, PA

Two remarkable frost fair keepsakes printed on presses set up on a frozen 18th century River Thames are to go under the hammer.

Though hard to imagine now, the Thames frequently froze over in the 16th to 19th centuries, with ice forming readily on the slow-moving water caused by obstructions to the flow near London Bridge.

The two small sheets of paper give the names of John and Samuel Mugeridge within a printed border and the printing date of February 9 1740.

They are expected to fetch £1,500 each when sold by Dominic Winter Auctioneers in Gloucestershire on December 11.

The first references to fairs and other diversions, including football, on the ice appear in 1564 and by the 17th and 18th centuries these frost fairs had become a London institution.

With particularly severe and long freeze-ups one might have encountered a street of booths with puppet shows, horse racing, ox-roasting, merry-go-rounds, skittle alleys and an array of printing presses offering cards and own-name mementoes.

Frost fair keepsakes sale
The frost fair keepsake printed for John Mugeridge in February 1740 (Dominic Winter Auctioneers/PA)

John Evelyn records in his diary for 1684 that “ladyes took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and the yeare set down when printed on the Thames”.

Often printers would set up customers’ names in pre-set decorative borders with a few lines of verse.

Even the rich and famous entered into the spirit of these frost fair spectacles.

In 1684 King Charles II and members of the royal family visited and had their names grouped collectively on a single sheet.

Auctioneer Chris Albury said: “The winter of 1739/40, known as ‘the hard winter’, brought a severe frost which started on Christmas Day and continued into February, so this extended frost fair had all manner of entertainments alongside food stalls and even temporary pubs.

“As a keepsake of this remarkable occurrence, a printing press was set up on the ice to print letterpress souvenirs for visitors, as in the present two examples we are offering made for the infants John and Samuel Mugeridge.

“Inevitably, these kinds of paper ephemera don’t survive well and are now very rare and collectable for social history and printing history purposes.

“We’ve tried to ascertain who John and Samuel Mugeridge may have been and it’s possible the one-year-old John went on to become a London stationer and bookseller, while his baby brother Samuel may have become a writer – so rather extraordinary that both of them became involved in printing and the written word.”

The printed verse on each of the 7in (17.8cm) by 9in (22.9cm) keepsakes reads: “Behold the liquid Thames now frozen o’er/That lately Ships of mighty Burden bore/Here Watermen for want to row in boats/Make use of bouze to get them Pence and Groats/Here you may print your Name, tho’ cannot write/’Cause numm’d with Cold: ‘Tis done with great delight!/And lay it by, that Ages yet to come/May see what Things upon the ice are done.”