The River Thames froze over on twenty three occasions between 1620 and 1814. Sometimes the ice was so thick that people could walk from one side to the other or cross in horse and carriage. There were “Frost Fairs” with traders setting up booths on the ice…“as fruit sellers, victuallers, that solde beere and wine, shoe makers and barber’s tents.” The frozen river also became a place for dancing, sports and games, as in the winter of 1565 and recorded by Stow and Holinshead.
“some plaied at the football as boldlie there, as if it had been drie land; diverse of the Court being then at Westminster, shot dailie at pricks set upon the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in anie street of the City of London.”
The winter of 1788/89 was particularly severe as noted by our local historian Edward Ironside…
“About Twickenham the ice was so thick that people walked daily on it as on the high road, and carts loaded passed from side to side. When the thaw came, which was sudden, and with a great noise occasioned by the separation of the ice, it threw it over all the adjacent gardens and grounds, and in many places 100 feet from the river, in pieces of a ton weight, and upwards of two feet in thickness. Both sides of the river had the appearance of a very rocky shore, as far as the eye could reach, and looked very awful.”
The reason for the freezing wasn’t just the severe weather - which in the winter of 1739-40 was so cold that - “tramps froze to death…birds dropped stiff from the sky, bread hardened into rocks on market stalls”…but the 19 narrow arches of Old London Bridge that so slowed the flow of the river that in extreme weather it froze solid.
All this was of interest to Jonathan Simpson, a local footpad who usually operated on Hounslow Heath. When the dreadful winter weather of 1685/6 put a crimp into his activities he found that the frozen Thames offered a unique opportunity for profit from one particular skill that he had - ice skating.
Jonathan Simpson was born in 1654 in Launceston, Cornwall and apprenticed at the age of 14 to a linen-draper in Bristol. When he completed his apprenticeship his wealthy and indulgent father gave him £1500 to set himself up. The first thing Jonathan did was to marry a merchant’s daughter who had her own fortune of £2000. Unfortunately she was still in love with a former suitor and the marriage soon fell apart. Jonathan Simpson, with his wife gone and his fortune rapidly disappearing, came to Hounslow to make a living as a highwayman. For all his intelligence and wit he was eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to be hung at Tyburn. Such was his luck that even as he stood on the gallows with the noose around his neck one of his wealthy relatives managed to buy him a reprieve. The sheriff’s officers took him back to Newgate where he had been originally imprisoned but when they arrived the prison governor refused to accept him. …as the Newgate Calendar, a daily record of events at the prison, reports…
“When he was brought to the prison door, the turnkey refused to receive him, telling the officer that, as he was sent to be executed, they were discharged of him, and would not have anything to do with him again, unless there was a fresh warrant for his commitment; whereupon Simpson made this reflection: “What an unhappy cast-off dog am I, that both Tyburn and Newgate should in one day refuse to entertain me! Well, I’ll mend my manners for the future, and try whether I can’t merit a reception at them both the next time I am brought hither.” He was as good as his word; for it was believed he committed above forty robberies in the county of Middlesex within six weeks after his discharge.”
The Winter frost of 1685/6 which held for 13 weeks, was particularly severe and the Thames froze as far inland as Kingston. Before Putney Bridge was opened in 1729 Kingston Bridge was the only crossing of the river between Old London Bridge and Staines Bridge. People living in Richmond, Twickenham, Isleworth and Ham who wished to cross had to put up with the inconvenience and expense of the ferries. (There is no mention of St Margarets here because as regular readers of these columns already know we didn’t appear on the map until 1830.) The frozen ice was seen by locals as a benefit and a saving. With so many people out on the ice Jonathan Simpson saw it as an opportunity to make some money. Having selected his victim - usually someone with a fat purse and a poor sense of balance - Simpson would skate up at speed, kick their legs away, rifle through their pockets and then disappear into the winter gloom before the target even knew that they had been robbed.
On one occasion he relieved a gentleman of a silk purse that he imagined would contain gold coins. When Simpson examined the purse that evening he was disappointed to discover that the purse contained not gold coins but brass counters. The Newgate Calendar takes up the story…
“When he found himself outwitted he made no words of it, but kept the brass booty in his pocket, looking out frequently for his benefactor, whom he knew to be often on the road. At the end of about four months he met his worship again, on Bagshot Heath, when, riding up to the coach – “Sir, ‘ says he, “I believe you made a mistake the last time I had the happiness to see you, in giving me these pieces; I have been troubled ever since for fear you should have wanted them at cards, and am glad of this opportunity to return them. Only for my care I require you to come this moment out of your coach and give me your breeches, that I may search them at leisure, and not trust any more to your generosity, lest you should mistake again.” The gentleman was obliged to comply by a pistol, and Simpson found at night that the freight of his breeches was a gold watch, a gold snuff-box, and a purse containing ninety-eight guineas and five jacobuses.” (A gold coin struck in the reign of King James 1st and worth 25 shillings.)
When the winter frost of 1686 ended and the easy pickings on the ice finished Jonathan Simpson was obliged to return to his summer job - as a highwayman. He was eventually arrested near Acton when he attempted to rob two captains of the Foot Guards. They took objection to this and a brisk fight ensued. Wounded in both arms and a leg Simpson tried to escape but one of the soldiers shot Simpson’s horse out from under him. He was brought to court, tried and sentenced to death. On this occasion when he was escorted to Newgate Prison the governor was happy to take him as was Tyburn to hang him.
“When he was sent to Newgate he now found the keeper so much his friend as to receive him; neither did Tyburn this time refuse to bear his burden.”
Jonathan Simpson, highwayman, footpad and expert skater was hanged at Tyburn on Wednesday, the 8th of September, 1686, aged thirty-two years.
– from Martyn Day