Leeds History – The Ice Fair

After Beyond Guardian Leeds shut up shop last month, I promised I’d keep going with a little Leeds history. Being a man of my word, here’s January’s edition.

We’ve been lucky in our winters lately. Some snow and cold last winter, but nothing like those during history. And if your parents or grandparents have ever said how bad 1963 or 1947 was, even they don’t know how bad winter can be.

The tail end of the 17th century was a little ice age in Britain. The winters were truly brutal and cold. In Leeds, the winter of 1683/84 was the real one for the record books. It was the year the River Aire froze.

It didn’t simply freeze, the ice was thick enough and lasted long enough to hold an ice fair on it. Stalls, markets, hot foods – and probably hot mulled wine – were erected on the ice, and most of the population, which would have been around 3,000, came to enjoy themselves. In all likelihood the Town Waits or musicians would have played at times and dignitaries been on show.

There was no river trade at this time. It was truly impassable, so the vessels that would have moved goods all the wall to Hull couldn’t penetrate. It’s almost certain that the cloth market would have been suspended, as the weavers would have found the roads impassable from their outlying villages. Grand and interesting it might have been, but it also meant that Leeds ground to a halt.

How far did the ice extend? We’ll never know for sure, but Leeds historian Ralph Thoresby recounted that he and a friend strode on to the ice at the mills below the Parish Church at the bottom of Kirkgate, then walked along the ice under Leeds Bridge and all the way to the Upper Dam, which is more or less where the railway station is today.

While ice fairs became almost annual events for a few years down in London as the Thames froze in this period, this is the only year Leeds was ever hit so hard. So, no matter what January or February do, just remember that it could be a great deal worse.

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