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|
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.
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