Of Ice and Men


The rain, it raineth everyday.

Yet this warm climate is a new thing to Britain. Once upon a time, ice skating on rivers was something you could actually do here.

All because of our Little Ice Age.

The Thames froze over and you could build a fire on it if you chose, and I have heard tell merchants actually did. Ice was plentiful: there were none of these milksop winters back then.

Image source: Wikipedia

Image source: Wikipedia

It occurred to people that if you did it right, you could store all that lovely ice so that, in the middle of a hot Summer, you could have ice in your drinks, and ice cream, and more importantly you could preserve food that bit longer.

They began to build ice houses. Usually subterranean, ice houses were cylindrical and brick lined to preserve the ice. It wasn’t a new idea.The Iranians had been doing it for more than 3,000 years, and the Chinese 700 years before Christ. Alexander the Great had one.

But James I built one in Greenwich Park in 1619 and it set off a rage of ice-house construction.

I happened upon Kew Ice House, wandering past it from King George III’s diminutive Kew Palace to the great greenhouses of Kew Gardens.

It sits silent, in the shadows of Kew, a stifling red-brick tomb. Walking in one is acutely aware that there is no other way out. Yet it is so perfectly constructed, this ancient brick dome underneath Kew’s turf. So often ice houses look decorative and rather lovely from the outside. ButΒ hey are strange, gothic places , hidden in the shadows far from the houses.

Every winter, it is said, great blocks of ice were cut from the lake nearby, and the ice house lined with straw before the ice was packed in to the strange domed structure, tucked away for the summer months.

Soon, Britain’s hunger for ice became insatiable. We got used to having ice around; and ice became a crop to be harvested.

It was only a matter of time before people began importing it.

But how? Wouldn’t the ice melt? How do you import a huge consignment of ice across seas and oceans to the ice houses of the rich and famous; to London’s food markets?

I’ll tell you exactly how.

The ice trade was like any other: they harvested it as a crop. They tethered horses to ice ploughs, and once the ice was cut into strips, hand saws were the only way to cut the ice in great blocks from the clean freezing lakes of Southern Norway.

Improbably large tongs were used to handle this coveted resource, and it was lifted by ice-cranes:onto an’ ice-railway’, wooden downhill tracks on which the ice could slide. It was a fairytale piece of logistics, where the ice would hurtle, untouched by human hand , on a track Β graced with curves, brakes and even viaducts, all the way to the ship.

From thence it sailed across the sea and up the Thames to London, to Regent’s Canal where two monumental ice wells had been dug to receive it.

The barges carried the ice away, far away, to the markets and the hotels and the great houses, for storage in those odd domed brick houses.

It was pollution which did for ice harvesting. Refrigeration was there in the background, well behind this huge business, but pollution began to creep into the natural ice and those giants of British hostelry, the breweries,began to grumble. The ice-making machines moved in, and the wholesale movement of ice from one landmass to another dwindled and died.

But the ice houses sit there still, damp in our torrential rain, abandoned and unsettling, deep in the shadows.

And they will probably be there, remains of a forgotten way of life, for centuries to come.


For a lovely picture of men actually cutting ice from a lake for an ice house, have a look at Steven’s ‘Cuttings’ post here!

Black and white images courtesy of TheCanalMuseum.org.uk


51 thoughts on “Of Ice and Men

  1. I see you’re at it again, with your spray mist that makes the invisible visible. I’d seen photos of the ice blocks and tongs before, but didn’t know about the wooden ice railroads or that it was shipped in from Norway. Interesting stuff. I also didn’t know the British were so ice happy. Americans make fun of Brits for their “warm” beer. Frankly, I think Americans put ice in their beer so it won’t be so obvious that it has no taste πŸ™‚

    1. Ha! I am making no comment, Jennifer, on the grounds that any answer might incriminate me. Myself I am a Becks fan. Bremen, I believe? But we have been ice happy for a long long time. I do know that Noway was exporting 340,000 tons of ice per year in the 1890s.

    1. πŸ˜€ What makes the export of ice so incredible is that I could not envisage the logistics – how it was done without huge proportions of it melting. But done it was, and very successfully!

    1. Nope. Reminds me of a time the barman at an old mansion I knew served me a glass of water with things swimming at the bottom of it. Turns out it had been serving customers from a tank on the roof for years, unaware it was not using the water main as everyone else did.

      Only in the crumbling old piles of England, Roger….

  2. When my mom grew up in the 30’s . . . the ice man would drive down the street to deliver huge blocks of ice for iceboxes (the refrigerator’s precursor).

    In summer, kids would beg for ice chips from the truck when it stopped (precursor to the Good Humor man). πŸ˜€

    1. Funnily enough, I have pictures of the old ice carts, drawn by horses, which used to chip ice off huge blocks for people in very ordinary streets, Nancy. Isn’t it amazing what can get lost in the mists of time?

  3. I don’t recall ever seeing ice houses as elaborate as pictured. Here, the ones which still remain are referred to as shanties or ice shacks. They still stand in rural communities, though ice-less for the most part. However, a near by Amish community cuts tonnes of ice each winter. It is stored in a building next to their vegetable processing plant, ingeniously the cool air is drawn from the ice to refrigerate their processing plant. Though in this area of late, winter ice can be rare, I assume a backup plan is in place.

    1. Just shows it can be done, doesn’t it, Hudson? I have great admiration for the determination of the Amish to do things in a way which honours our planet, and our fellow man.

  4. Thanks Kate. Interesting history of how ice was harvested in the past. You post and the comments helped answer some of my questions I had in my post on Winter Cuttings.

      1. I hope you didn’t get my Winter Pruning post mixed up with the Winter Cutting post. In the Winter Cutting post I have a nice Currier & Ive’s print of cutting ice on a pond. I posted it on Dec. 14.

  5. History and man’s ingenuity never ceases to amaze! I had no idea that there was a trade in ice-harvesting. Pardon the pun, but that’s very cool. Merry Christmas!

  6. Twin thoughts on different continents Kate! I adore Ice Houses although have seen none quite as lovely as what you’re showing us here. And here, they’ve been turned into fantastically artistic spaces and bars!

  7. Fascinating post, Kate — and I will overlook the comment about Americans putting ice in their beer, but I do rather appreciate a frozen glass. Back to the topic, hygiene wasn’t an issue, or did that not cross anyone’s mind since life expectancy was so much shorter back then? Now I’m thinking about how many shekels I have blown on bottled water through the years.

  8. In rural Western Canada, many of us had an ice shed. They were filled with sawdust that coated huge chunks of ice. Brothers would chip off large chunks to place in the icebox inside the house. Or just outside the door in a porch.

    I haven’t thought of these for years. So England was supplied by Norway.

    I remember hearing years ago about a scheme where the Arabs were going to buy icebergs and float them home. I don’t think it ever happened.

    May have joined the animal umbrella scheme!

  9. My goodness this is interesting! It’s a bit hard to imagine it being managed as an export, though, isn’t it? It’s funny to even refer to “the ice trade.” And here I was this weekend in an ice house with decorative ice carvings. Seems to me that ice is a formidable resource of many purposes. I did have to laugh at the comments on “warm beer” versus “cold beer.” It seems that is one debate that isn’t going to be settled. We Americans drink everything iced! Maybe I need to research why that is! πŸ™‚

  10. I knew many of the great houses had their own ice storage but never realised that it was also imported in such quantity. Fascinating. I also knew something of the raise and fall of temperatures in the country, there was period of warmth right about when those Georgian girls of Jane Austen period drama were tripping around in flimsy muslin dresses. No wonder their children took to the voluptuous shawls of the Victorian period. πŸ™‚

  11. There was just a local feature about the ice industry on Boston’s North Shore. I confess, I thought it was a crop consigned to history, but no. Ice harvesting is alive in New England.

    We do not have royal ice-houses, though. Those I continue to envy πŸ˜‰

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