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Monday, 25 March 2013

Ice Houses

What would life be like without ice-cream? consider all those Regency heroines beguiled by a visit to Gunter's for ice cream, and too all the exotic dishes served at the feasts of the gentry necessitating ice in their manufacture.  Where would they be without a means to procure ice in midsummer?  here we come to the humble ice house that flourished long before anyone invented the freezer. 

The ice house was, in general, introduced into Britain in the mid 17th century according to Wikipedia, however as I have several much earlier recipes that call for ice I am half inclined to dispute this - ice was imported to Britain from Norway  up to the 19th century, but it would seem strange indeed if one spent a lot of money on ice and could not then store it.  The Country House Kitchen  [Sambrook and Brears, Sutton publishing 1996] conjectures that the ice conserve may have been copied from Spanish examples in Grenada, and cites those built in Greenwich Park and Hampton Court grounds in 1618 and 1626, and mentions earlier Elizabethan ones, and explains that it was with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that such structures became more widespread and commonplace, in imitation of the luxury of which Charles had partaken in exile in France.
I  conjecture that the  expensively imported ice was stored in cold cellars, well insulated, before the idea of separate ice houses was thought of.  In 'Farmer Boy' by Laura Ingalls Wilder, set in pioneer America, the ice cut from the nearby lake was stored in straw in a cellar and kept well enough to provide ice for ice creams, so it is possible.  As ice houses were not commonly marked on estate maps [thanks to Adrian Howlett for that information] it could also be that any earlier ice houses were just lost, especially if not of the refined, below ground design that was developed later.

Francis Bacon  first proved that ice can preserve meat by stuffing a fowl with snow.  He famously caught pneumonia and died of it, which proves my contention that clever men almost always have no common sense.  However it was not usually for the preservation of food that ice was used but to make iced creams and other confections; though by the 1820's, JC Loudon is advocating the use of the outer part of the ice house to freeze surplus fruit to use through the winter as well as discussing the siting and building of them as part of estate design [Encyclopaedia of Gardening, Loudon, 1822]. [available on Google Books]

The basic concept of the ice house is simple enough; that it should, ideally, be on a north facing slope, be largely underground if possible or with very thick walls if not, with a drain dug below to carry away any melting water.  Some were loaded from above through a hole in the usually domed ceiling, some through the door.  The ice was pounded down and then packed tightly where it froze into so solid a mass it needed picks or mattocks to dig it out as required.  Straw around the edges of the room helped to insulate it, and the passageway into the icehouse was also packed with straw for insulation.  Ideally it was also near water, partly for the cooling effect of the same, and partly so that there was less far to carry the ice when it was cut in winter to be stored.  It must be remembered that the mini ice age was in full swing from the 17th century  until 1814, and the winters still very cold for a long while after that. 
Though the design in the Encyclopaedia  is from 1822 the design is very similar to others of earlier times too and did not change significantly in anything but detail, including the one recently excavated in Ipswich, in Holywells Park which was mid Victorian and probably built in the 1860's by John Chevalier Cobbold who was responsible for much building work.  [My thanks for information on that to local historian and Holywells Park expert,  Adrian Howlett, whose 2004 dissertation included a map of the same taken from living memory of its situation before it was razed and filled in.].  Adrian has kindly permitted me to use two of his own photographs of a similar ice house:
this narrow entrance through the thickness of the walls shows how deeply tucked away the ice was kept. Photograph Adrian Howlett, copyright
the typical domed roof of an ice-house, this one has a small hole, presumably for evaporation to avoid condensation and the build up of unwanted water, some had access to the ice house through the roof with a chute for the ice. Photograph Adrian Howlett, copyright

Ice houses were either hidden away out of sight, or made to be decorative features in a landscape; Sambrook and Brears tell us:

"The early nineteenth-century architect and landscape designer, J.B. Papworth, designed a number of ice-houses in the styles of Egyptian temples and country cottages.  The ice house at Myerscough Farm in Lancashire is a small version of Papworth's Egyptian temple, and those at Buckland in Oxfordshire and Newbattle Abbey in Lothian were hidden behind classical facades."  [Sambrook and Brears 1996]

And the reason I was inspired to write this post was the discovery of some decorative ice-houses in Ackermann's Repository which I was browsing HERE a wonderful online source.  
So here they are, delightfully far from utilitarian! one from 1817 and one JUST inside the Regency in 1820.

So now, the challenge for the authors who use my page is to find a way to use an ice house.  Will it be the relatively prosaic wonder of a poor relation being served ice cream from an estate ice house?  will a heroine fleeing from some fate worse than death run to hide in an ice house, unaware of the drop into the ice at the end of the passage, finding herself out of the frying pan and into the - er, ice, in deadly peril of freezing to death, only to be rescued by the hero and finding her thin muslin suddenly transparent as the ice melts outside?  will some villain use the ice house to conceal a body and keep it from decomposition to hide the time of death to permit the last will and testament of some other person to devolve upon whoever is kept on ice?

Thanks to Frances Bevan for providing a link to her blog with regards to the ice house at Lydiard Park, Swindon HERE

Additional information, 11/8/13, regarding the use of saltpetre for cooling which might be used instead of, or in conjunction with, ice from an ice house, on Kathryn Kane's excellent blog, HERE


  1. I hadn't realised how important the water table was. And thank you for the lovely links :-)

    Charlotte Frost

  2. Hi Charlotte, thanks! I see like me you read the blurb from the original sources - it hadn't immediately occurred to me, though it should have done, as in places in my garden the water table is only a few feet down [it ain't called 'Spring Road' for nothing] and I have a tunnel through my foundations for the seasonal spring... I love Ackermann's, there are so many little snippets, and I'll be using it as a basis for several other blogs on gardens to come...

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post Sarah. I have a special interest in the ice house at Lydiard Park, Swindon. Your readers might like to pop across to my blog for a look at this one on

  4. Thank you, Frances! I only wish I knew how to make your link a live link, I think I shall edit my post to add it.

  5. It is interesting to see how effective these structures were at conserving the ice, even in full summer heat. Here in Spain (south of Valencia) there are numerous "caves" usually on land owned by the bishop, carved out of the limestone. A covering of straw and earth was apparently enough to keep the ice from melting even in our hottest summers. Mostly they date from the 1700's

  6. That's fascinating - especially as there is some suggestion that the Spanish concept may have been the inspiration for the English ones. Underground places seem to maintain a fairly even temperature all year round, I suppose even if that is above freezing it's not warm enough to achieve the energy to lift ice at 0 degrees to water at 0 degrees, the specific heat capacity of H2O is quite high and it requires a fair bit of energy to melt it.

  7. ... I failed my physics 'A' level on the electronics. Mechanics and the laws of heating and cooling I can do.

  8. really interesting - thanks for sharing

  9. You're welcome, Helen, glad you enjoyed!

  10. I wonder if the concept of the "frost line" was so well known back then that scientists failed to write about it. At about 6 feet, the temperature remains constant and just above freezing. It would be easy to bury ice at that depth, insulate it with straw and maintain a ready supply throughout the summer.

    When you wrote that the ice was hard packed, how did they do that, or did that happen over time as the ice melted and more was added?

    Fascinating post. Love this stuff.
    Elf Ahearn
    "Regency romance with a Gothic twist."
    Lord Monroe's Dark Tower - Available September 16th!