The Winter of Some Discontent

In which photos send me on a search….

Reading my friend David’s blog on Friday took me back to our last trip to London and the realization that I had never tidied up the photos from that trip. So I diligently began going through the files and labelling things properly. Now who this is for, other than mysef, I’m not really sure. We all take millions of pixels with our iPhones and digital cameras these days but other than a few posts to a social media where else do they go?

The Frost Fair of 1621 looking toward Southwark – a diorama in the exhibition hall at Shakespeare’s Globe. Thorp Modelmakers – 1912

Ah but I digress much as I did when I came across photos of a diorama from the exhibition at Shakespeare’s Globe. Crafted in 1912 by Thorp Modelmakers it is a reconstruction of the Thames looking to Southwark as it would have been in 1621 during the Great Frost of that year.

Title page to the published works of John Taylor – 1640 from the Lambeth Palace Library

This led me to a search for the story behind that particular Great Frost (one of the many during the 16th-19th centuries) that turned the River Thames to “water hard as iron”. In one source there was a quote from The colde tearme; or the frozen age; Or the metamorphoses of the River of the Thames by John Taylor, the Water Poet. Who? Never heard of him? Neither had I and that led to yet a further search. A fascinating man, Taylor was a waterman as well as the writer of some 150 poems, pamphlets, tracts, and travel diaries. At the time there was only one bridge across the Thames and the populace was dependent on the watermen to ferry them and their goods from the City across to Southwark. Ships also loaded and took on cargo from midstream as the tides made it impossible to dock close to shore.

Taylor became an officer of the newly formed Watermen’s Company and in 1620 he estimated that 20,000 people – watermen, their families and servants – made a living from this service. By 1620 that number had doubled as trade with the New World increased. Watermen had a bad reputation and Taylor often addressed their life and plight in his poems. Indeed a portion of The colde tearme talks of the Great Frost not only killing “hearbes and rootes” but the livelihood of the watermen.

Of course this lead to a search for the poem itself. Not the easiest thing to find and once there some of the language was a bit obscure – after all we are talking Elizabethan/Jacobean English. That led to further searches for meanings, etymologies etc. But it was great fun – almost as much fun as a Frost Fair?

Though his poem does speak to some of the pleasures of that Frost Fair in 1621, he also records the suffering that six weeks of bitter and freezing cold brings to those around him. The shortage of firewood, the lack of water, the dwindling of supplies coming in by boat, inadequate housing and clothing, the smog from the coal being burned – is it any wonder the Frost Fair was a welcome diversion?

In the following sections I’ve modernized some of Taylor’s language however left the case endings that still existed in the English of the day e.g. boots = bootes. I’ve also left some of the more colourful archaic words or phrases that give his writing its character, with an explanation at the bottom of each passage.

 It was the time when men wore liquor’d bootes*,
When rugged Winter, murdered hearbes & rootes;
When as the Heavens, the Earth did all attire
With plashes,* puddles, pooles, black dirt & mire.
Then at that time (to poore men’s care and costs)
A Christmas came to Towne, betwixt two Frosts
Then in the numb Cold month of January,
When as the Sunne was lodg’d in moyst* Aquarius:
When Boreas* (all with Isickles bedight*)
Worse than a Barber, ‘gan to shave* and bite,
Turning Thames streames to hard congealed flakes,
And pearled water drops to Christall* cakes.
*liquor’d boots – waxed boots
  hearbes - herbs
  plashes - grey curtains of rain
  moyst – moist, wet
  Boreas - the North Wind
  with Isickles bedight – with icicles bedecked
  shave – nip
  Christall – crystal 
The Swan playhouse (red building centre on shore) was one of four theatres that vied for audiences along the South Bank. Watermen depended on eager punters making their way from the City to the fleshpots and entertainment in Southwark and environs.

Taylor was a strange mixture of boatman, moralist, publicity hound, social activist and would-be poet. In the next passage he sees the tragic side of the six weeks of bitter cold on those around him. Charity is perhaps a person though might just as well be an allegory for that often forgotten virtue.

 Then Charity (in poore distresled* state)
Upon a Cake of Ice, lamenting late,
Halfe hunger-sterv’d*, and thinly clad she quiver’d,
As if in peeces shee would straight have shiver’d.
When as a Parson (that could never Preach,
Yet to three Benefices* well could reach)
Saw Charity to want both Foode and Cloathing,
Past by, ne’re spake to her, nor gave her nothing.
Next an Atturney her poore Case did see,
But all his Consciences wayted* on his Fee:
He walk’d along, and look’d a scaunt* on her,
And vow’d that all his Life, he never knew her.
A world of people more did thrust and throng,
Yet none Reliev’d her as they past along:
Until at last (as she was like to Dye)
The Maisters of an Hospitall past by;
They stay’d and did compassionate her Case,
And straight provided her a Lodging place.
There was a Us’rer*, with his Purse fast shut,
Did rayle* at her and call’d her Idle slut:
And said she to Virginia should be Shipt,
Or to Bridewell* be sent, and soundly whipt.
But at the last (to many a mizers* Griefe)
Shee in an Hospitall did finde Reliefe:
And whither shee be dead or like to dye,
Those that Relieve her better know than I.

* sterve - perishing/dying
   Benefices - paid church position
   wayted - waited
   scaunt - I could not find a word could he mean "askance"?
   Us'rer - Usurer or money lender
   rayle - scoff
   Bridewell - a London prison for fallen women and vagrants
   mizers - misers
Ramps were cut out of the embankments to give horses, wagons and holiday maker access to the frozen Thames.
 But once againe, I’ll turn me to my Theame
Of the conglutinated Frozen streame;
Upon whose Glassie face both too and fro,
Five hundred people all at once did go.
At Westminster there went three Horses over
Which safely did from shore to shore recover,
There might be seen spic’d Cakes and roasted Pigs,
Beere, Ale, Tobacco, Apples, Nuts, and Figs,
Fires made of Char-coles, Faggots, and Sea-coles*,
Playing and couz’ning* at the Pidg’on-holes*:
Some, for two Pots at Tables, Cards, or Dice:
Some slipping in betwixt two Cakes of Ice:
Some going on their businesse and affaires,
From Bank-side to Pauls or to Trig-staires*.
*sea-coles – mined coal
  couz’ning – trickery or deceit
  Pidg’on-holes – a form of gambling
  Bankside to Pauls or to Trig-staires – from Southwark
  to the stairs at Pauls or Trig’s wharves
The Bull Baiting ring had been moved from the large red building on shore to a temporary home on the ice.

The first few lines of the next section brought to mind the price-gouging that I recall in Montreal during the Great Ice Storm of 1998. Plus ça change!

 And in this gnashing age of Snow and Ice,
The Wood-mongers* did mount so high their price:
That many did to lye a bed desire
To save the charge of Wood, and Cole, and Fire.
Amongst the Whores, there were hot commings in,
Who ever lost, they still were sure to win,
They in one hour, so strangely did heat men,
That (for) all the Frost they scarce were coole again.
The Us’rers* Bonds, and Landlords Rent came on,
Most Trades had something to depend upon;
Onely the water-men just nothing got,
And yet (by Gods good helpe) they wanted not:
But all had coyne* or credit, foode and fire,
And what the neede of nature did require.
So farewell Frost, if Charity be living,
Poore men shall finde it, by rich mens giving.

* Wood-mongers - Sellers of fire wood
   coyne - money (coin)

Though Taylor’s poetry served him well in his time it is almost unknown today. It is often mere doggerel but with sudden turns of phrase or passages that brilliantly capture his era – its morals and its events. He was a colourful man and a left click on the picture below will take you to a brief essay on the man and his work (waterman and poet).

On this day in 1940: Tom and Jerry make their debut with Puss Gets The Boot.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

5 thoughts on “The Winter of Some Discontent”

  1. I always forget my neighbourhood was so fascinating! Thanks for bringing it to life on a far less interesting modern day. X

  2. Poor Charity! All the ones who passed her by — that hasn’t changed either.

    This is fascinating, Willym — Taylor sounds like he was an interesting guy. Thanks for letting us read his poem!

    1. I most certainly was. I lived in Montreal at the time and our grid was the last one in the city to have power restored. I lived on the 14th floor of an apartment building at Peel and Sherbrooke and we were without power for almost three weeks. It was an interesting time. And I discovered that Kraft Cheese slices didn’t need refrigeration as they had nothing natural in them.

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