The Frost Fair
A historical long read just for you
Author Karen Byrom
The lingering, bitter cold brought extra hardship for maids like Maria – but the occasional unexpected pleasure, too…
It was mid-January and there was still no easing of the intense cold that had held London in its icy grip since the closing days of the dying year.
The fog that preceded the ice and snow had been bad enough, Maria thought, shivering in the early morning, but at least it had been of short duration. Whereas it seemed this freeze would never end.
Wrapping her shawl twice around her slim shoulders, she hurried down the backstairs from her attic quarters to the basement kitchen where her day’s work began.
If Maria didn’t have the range going before Cook appeared in thirty minutes’ time, there would be a to-do, she knew. Cook’s temper, never certain, had not been improved by the long, hard winter and the scarcity of fresh produce – most roads to London were impassable and even the rich households of Wimpole Street were having to accustom themselves to leaner rations.
A quick glance in the coal scuttle by the hearth, and Maria’s heart sank – there were just a few nuggets remaining. She would have to visit the cellar again.
Oh, well! It was Maria’s nature to be cheerful – a singular blessing for a lowly housemaid whose day began at dawn and ended well after dusk, though today was her precious half-day.
Morning chores still had to be done, though – and first she had to get the fires lit in the grand rooms on the ground and first floors of the house.
After a brief struggle with the frosty seal that had formed overnight, the young maid opened the kitchen door and stepped out into the backyard, her breath a frozen cloud in the sharp air.
Though the sun hadn’t yet risen, the trees beyond the yard glistened with fairy frosting, but Maria had neither inclination – nor the time – to admire the work of Johnny Frost. She had her own work to do.
Normally, one of the men would see to the coal supply for the household but they weren’t yet about, and Maria couldn’t wait. Not with Cook on the warpath! Putting down the heavy scuttle, she grasped the shovel by the side of the cellar and commenced to shovel up the coal, noting as she did so that supplies were running low here, too.
What would happen if the coal ran out before winter eased, she mused thoughtfully. Would they all freeze solid in their beds and be found in spring, like little mannequins in the doll’s house in Miss Emily’s nursery?
She gave herself a shake and recommenced shovelling the coal. “Too many fancies in that head of yours,” Cook often said. This time she was right.
Maria had just hoisted the scuttle, with difficulty, in her two hands when she felt the load suddenly lighten and a cheerful voice say, “Let me help you with that, Maria.”
Maria jumped at least a foot in the air.
“Ted!” she cried, her fright making her cross. “What are you doing up and about so early?” The butcher’s boy appeared at the kitchen door most days with Cook’s order – but never this early.
“Couldn’t sleep for the cold,” Ted followed her into the kitchen and swung his burden of coal onto the hearth with ease. “So I decided I’d take a wander up Wimpole Street and see if I could catch a few moments with my lovely Maria before the day’s work begins.”
“You’d have to be here earlier than this,” Maria snorted, already busy laying the fire in the range with numb fingers. “And don’t call me ‘my lovely’. I’m not yours and I’m not lovely. And shut that door before we both freeze to death.”
“Just as cold in here as it is out there,” Ted grinned, but obeyed her, then settled his long gangly frame at the kitchen table while Maria turned to the pump above the large stone sink.
“Oh no!” She groaned. “The pipes have frozen again.”
Ted jumped up at once.
“Give me the pail – I’ll go out to the street pump.”
“Thanks, Ted,” Maria softened, despite herself. “Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
You’ll never have to,” Ted teased. “One day you will be mine, my lovely Maria. I won’t give up till you give in.”
“When Hell freezes over!” Maria called after his departing back. Which may not be long now, she added to herself.
By the time Ted returned, Cook had appeared and was none too pleased at the lack of hot – or indeed any – water.
“Don’t blame me,” Maria said pertly.
“I don’t blame you,” Cook retorted, though she glowered as if she’d like to. “Blast this weather and blast those blasted Frenchies!”
Maria stifled a giggle. Anything Cook couldn’t blame on her, she blamed on the enemy over the water, who’d been causing trouble for England for years. She took the heavy pail from Ted and filled the large kettle, taking care not to spill a drop of the precious water onto the flag-stoned floor.
Cook, meanwhile, was eyeing the young man suspiciously.
“I won’t say I’m not grateful for your help,” she said ungraciously. “But I would like to know what you’re doing here at this unearthly hour.”
She looked suspiciously from him to Maria. Like the rest of the below stairs staff, she knew the young butcher’s boy had a hankering for the pretty housemaid.
“I came to tell the news!” Ted said, his young face aglow with excitement. “There’s people walking on the river, down by Blackfriars Bridge. They’re setting up stalls and there’s going to be dancing and skittle games and all. I wanted to ask Maria if she’d do me the honour of walking down there with me this afternoon, to see the sight herself.” He was still addressing Cook, but his eyes twinkled merrily at Maria. “I know it’s her half-day.”
Maria tossed the long red curls that were always escaping from her mobcap.
“And how do you know that, sir?”
Ted tapped the side of his nose.
“A little bird told me.”
“Must have been a robin then! None other to be seen in this weather.” Maria was already halfway out of the kitchen door, coal hod in hand.
So will you come, then?” Ted called after her – but answer there came none.
Exchanging her sober brown dress and pinafore for a lavender-striped dress with matching bonnet – a cast-off of Miss Sophie’s – Maria felt a frisson of excitement at the thought of the outing ahead. Ted’s description of the frozen Thames had proved too alluring to resist – but she wasn’t planning to go with him.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like the lad – though he wasn’t particularly handsome, he was funny and clever and kind – but she’d witnessed first-hand the disgrace of her fellow maid, Martha, dismissed with a swollen belly and now living in semi-squalor with the ne’er-do-well man who’d seduced her.
That wasn’t going to be the life for Maria. Only the promise of a comfortable home would tempt her to take seriously the attentions of any man.
Romance was for the rich, as far as Maria was concerned, for Miss Sophie and Miss Caroline, the older girls of the family, who giggled over novels, smuggled in under their shawls. Pride and Prejudice was the name of one of them, written by some lady, and Sense and Sensibility another.
Maria didn’t know anything about sensibility, but she had plenty sense, and she wasn’t being sweet-talked by a butcher’s errand boy with no prospects, no matter how twinkly his eyes.
And so, escaping the ministrations of Cook, who bustled behind her with extra shawls and exhortations to be back before it got dark, Maria slipped out of the back door and made her way alone towards the river.
It was true she had a few qualms as she passed through Covent Garden. Once a respectable area, there were more women of ill-repute, pimps, thieves and beggars than market stalls there now, and Maria hurried on into Drury Lane, passing its fine new theatre, before joining the throng on the Strand who all seemed, like her, to be heading for the river.
Young and old, rich and poor, fine folk and apprentices – all stopped short at the sight of the Thames, its waters magnificently still, yet its surface seething with people trusting their weight to the great chunks of ice that had melted with the current to form an inch-thick barrier over the icy depths below.
For a moment, Maria stood stock still in wonder. Then, breathless with cold and excitement, she stepped onto the frozen river, unaware of the young man watching her wistfully from the side of an ice-bound barge.
Maria had parted with the precious two pennies she’d had clutched in her hands ever since leaving Wimpole Street, and gained admittance to what the folks around her were calling the Frost Fair. At first she wandered happily among the stalls selling ale and gingerbread, watched the skittle players skilfully adapt their game to the slippery ice, and evaded the solicitations of the pamphleteers who’d brought their printing presses on to the ice and were churning out penny mementoes of this once-in-lifetime occasion.
But now the cold air nipped at her cheeks and ungloved hands and she was feeling tired and hungry – and, truth be told, a little lonely. Not for the first time, she reflected how much more fun it would be to have a companion to share her wonder.
As if by magic, a young man materialised by her side.
What’s a pretty lady like you doing here all alone?” he asked. “And looking so pinched and chilled.”
Before she could retreat, he’d caught her hands. “Let me buy you a mug of spiced ale to warm you up.”
Maria looked up and her heart gave a flutter. The young man was tall, with dark curls and the most handsome brown eyes. But she had not refused Ted’s company in order to fall thrall to a stranger, no matter how personable and kind he seemed.
“Thank you, sir,” she said politely, withdrawing her hands at the same time. “But I’m in no need of refreshment. In fact, I must be leaving now – I’m expected back at Wimpole Street.”
The young man raised an eyebrow.
“Oh come,” he said persuasively, “that’s a long walk away. At least let me treat you to some gingerbread to sustain you on your journey.”
“Sir, I don’t even know you,” Maria stammered.
The man doffed his hat. “Mr Rush, at your service.” He smiled. “There, now you know me and can accept some refreshment with impunity.” He crooked his elbow invitingly and despite herself, Maria was impressed. Such handsome manners and impressive words. This man must be educated – and surely quite a catch?
She gave one last feeble protest. “No sir, I’m afraid I must return home,” but even as she spoke she allowed him to catch her hand again and lead her to a nearby stall where the tantalising smell of hot spiced ale proved too much to withstand.
May I know the name of my charming companion?” Mr Rush asked as they stood sipping the warming drink.
“It is Maria, sir,” she said. And so that he should be under no illusions as to her position in society she added, “I am a housemaid in a house in Wimpole Street.”
He bowed. “I know the area well,” he replied. But he did not, as Maria has hoped volunteer any more information about himself. Could he be a groom or a valet at one of the houses nearby? For a moment or two, she allowed a rosy dream to float before her eyes, a dream in which she was lady’s maid to a kind, rich young mistress while her handsome dark-haired husband ministered to the mistress’s own beloved.
Then she remembered Martha.
Quickly, she drained her mug of ale.
“Thank you, sir. I must go now. Cook expects me back before darkness falls.”
Mr Rush smiled persuasively.
“I am sure you can be spared ten minutes more. I heard that they are to bring the elephant from the Royal Menagerie on to the ice in order to test its strength. Wouldn’t you like to see that?”
An elephant! Maria had never seen such a creature, nor a lion nor tiger either. Maybe she and Mr Rush could walk out to the Tower that housed the Royal menagerie one day … She caught herself sharply, reminding herself that for now, at any rate, she did not want a young man. But surely there could be no harm in staying to see the sight of her exotic beast? If she ran all the way back to Wimpole Street, she would not be late …
A collective sigh went up in the crowd as the huge pachyderm lumbered slowly and unwillingly on the ice. Maria clung tightly to Mr Rush’s arm, awed by the size of the animal and positively astounded that it could be controlled so easily by the slight dark man coaxing it on to the frozen river.
Suddenly, there was an almighty noise as the animal raised its trunk and trumpeted a loud complaint at being asked to walk on this slippery, alien surface.
“Aaah,” went the crowd, and Maria simultaneously, then “ooooh” as the mammoth’s huge legs buckled beneath it. As it struggled to regain its footing, its handler lost grip of the leash, and suddenly the elephant was loose on the ice, and lumbering desperately for escape, right through the middle of the now screaming crowd!
“Bleedin’ ‘ell!” Maria felt her hand wrenched from Mr Rush’s arm as he scrambled sideways out of the path of the elephant which was lumbering straight towards them. She tried desperately to run herself, but her feet slipped from under her and she landed flat on the ice.
All she could do was close her eyes and gabble a prayer to the Almighty as the thundering beast drew near her. Surely her last hour had come?
But just as she thought she’d be tramped to death, a warm body landed beside her, and strong hands pushed her across the ice.
The elephant thundered past, pursued by its keeper, half a dozen stout fellows and a horde of cheering boys.
“Oh!” Maria raised herself shakily to a sitting position and turned to thank her rescuer.
T-T-Ted!” she exclaimed. “How did you get here?”
“Same way as you.” He gave a pale imitation of his normal cheeky grin, obviously as shaken as she was. “I paid my tuppence at the gate.”
“Did you know I was here then? Were you –” Suspicion clouded Maria’s eyes. “Were you following me?”
Ted’s freckled face turned red. “Not at first, I wasn’t,” he confessed. “But when I saw you down by the river. I thought maybe you’d changed your mind about walking out with me, so I came into the Fair behind you. But then you disappeared and the next thing I knew, you was hooked up with that posh-looking toff –”
“Mr Rush,” Maria supplied. She looked around, but her erstwhile swain had disappeared from view.
“He’s scarpered,” Ted confirmed. He gave a snort of disgust. “Didn’t even hang around to see if you was all right.”
“He wasn’t so posh as he made out.” Now that she was out of danger, Maria was overcome by a sudden fit of the giggles at the memory of Mr Rush’s sudden transformation from genteel to downright vulgar.
Ted shook his head. “Come on.” He pulled her to her feet. “I think it’s time I took you home – if you’ll allow me, that is,” he added.
A shout from the crowd told them that the elephant had been recaptured and was making its way to the other side of Blackfriars Bridge, the ice holding its weight, though it did give a few ominous groans.
Reckon you had a lucky escape,” Ted said gruffly as he led her carefully towards the shore.
“Reckon I did,” Maria replied. And not just from the elephant, she added silently to herself.
Their walk back to Wimpole Street took less than an hour, but in that time Ted managed to confide in Maria all his hopes and dreams for the future. He wasn’t going to be a butcher’s errand boy for ever, it transpired – only yesterday morning, Jack Rawlins, the butcher’s assistant, had announced he was moving on to a better position, and Mr Barnes, the boss, had asked Ted did he want an apprenticeship?
“So in a few years I’ll be a paid butcher’s assistant instead of running messages here and there for farthings,” Ted exulted. “And then it won’t be long till I get me own shop.” His merry eyes hardened with determination and he caught Maria by the hand.
“Then I’ll be looking for a wife,” he said seriously. “And I’m hoping by that time you’ll have walked out with me often enough to know that I’m trusty and hard-working – and that I love you and want to look after you for the rest of our lives.”
Maria’s head told her she should withdraw her hand from his grasp. It would be years indeed before Ted could provide for her. And at just sixteen, she didn’t think that either of them should be tied to promises.
But her heart sang a different message, fluttering in a way it never had before. Ted was merry and kind; brave, too. A boy – a man – who’d been tested and not found wanting, a man who would never desert her in her hour of need.
There could be no harm in walking out with Ted occasionally while they both worked hard for a better future, she reasoned. And if that future was to be shared – well, they’d just have to wait and see.
“Maybe on my next half day, we could go to see the Royal Menagerie,” she suggested shyly. “I’d fairly like to see that elephant again – from a safe distance, that is.”
As Ted squeezed her hand tightly, a delicious warmth flooded through her whole body.
It would be weeks yet before the ice melted and the snow disappeared, but in Maria’s heart, the thaw had already begun.