1979-Oct-pg13_Ice Houses

1979-Oct-pg13_Ice Houses

This article came from the Chronicle published September 1978. Page 13



Author: R.J.Clynick


The ice-house was the forerunner of the modern domestic refrigerator, but its origins go back many centuries. There is documentary evidence and pictorial description of its existence in the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations; indeed, there is mention of one in a poem, written in China, about 1000 BC.

The purpose of the ice-house was storage of ice harvested from lakes and rivers in winter for use during the rest of the year. It is uncertain when these houses were introduced into this country – was it the result of monasteries bringing the idea from abroad, or through wealthy travellers discovering their use on the Continent while doing the ‘Grand Tour’? It is said Elizabeth the First was a devotee of ‘ice-cream’, so it seems likely ice-storing had already begun by the 16th century. By the 17th century to have ice available in summer was considered a desirable luxury, but by the 18th, the use of ice, particularly for food preservation, the preparation of ice-cream, and water ices, was common among the wealthier members of Society. An ice-house was built for Charles the Second in Green Park, London, in 1660, so that iced drinks and ice-cream were available at royal picnics.

Remains of ice-houses are to be found on the estates of many stately homes but, alas, many more have become derelict and ruinous. The National. Trust has restored a number of them on their acquired properties.

The pattern and shape of these buildings usually comprise a deep pit, brick-lined and domed, egg shaped in section, 15-20 feet deep and 15 feet in diameter, and well below ground level to take advantage of the steady and fairly low temperature underground. A drain, with an air trap was constructed at the bottom, because, unless water from melting ice drained away freely, the walls and the straw usually packed around the ice, became saturated and insulation was impaired. It followed that ice houses had to be put where drainage could be effected, usually some distance from the house.

The head gardener was usually in charge of filling the ice house with ice which, having been collected as stated above, was broken and rammed down in the store. It is recorded that at Killerton in Devon, in 1809, it took thirty men five days to store forty tons of ice, and this would have lasted two to three years. Once filled, the entrance was packed with ice and straw, and kept closed until summer when ice would be taken up to the house. It was used in cellars and kitchens for keeping fish, meat, and dairy produce cool, for preparation of deserts, wine cooling, treatment of fevers, and even cooling rooms. Food was occasionally stored on top of the ice, but this meant opening up too often, when more rapid melting would result.

Ice houses fell into disuse late in the nineteenth century when block ice, superior to home-produced and known as ‘arctic crystal’, became readily available from Norway and the USA. As domestic refrigeration became more general at the beginning of the twentieth century so the ice house declined, and from that time most were neglected and became dilapidated.

The exterior architecture of many of them was often very decorative and in keeping with the houses they served. In Victorian times the subject of the ice house underwent much consideration, and a few of this period are extremely elaborate, illustrating perfection of construction. ‘Ice houses at Stourhead and Killerton have been restored. Nearer home, Montacute House and Sherborne Castle have them, and while the pits. are still in reasonable condition, the entrances and superstructures, are in need of much repair. Access at Montacute is precarious and not recommended. Brympton House does not possess one, but until fairly recently there was one at the Picket Witch House Hotel, but becoming derelict, was filled in and built over. There must be many remaining in the country, but research is required to record location and state of repair.