The Camden Ice Wells
In 1995 developers who wished to erect a block of offices at 34/36 Jamestown Road, could not decide where to place the pilings for their heavy building. Down below were some nineteenth century ice wells but exactly where, nobody knew. The ice wells were somewhere below ground, economically useless, capped over and forgotten. Now they had become a problem.
Malcolm Tucker, who is a specialist in industrial archaeology, looked first at the historical evidence. Later he was present to record what was found when the larger ice well was opened, and an abseiler went down to measure it.1
Goad Fire Insurance map. 1891
Modern refrigeration allows us to freeze water into ice at will, anywhere in the world. In the nineteenth century things were very different. Then ice had to be collected in the winter from frozen lakes or canals and stored throughout the rest of the year. Large houses had ice wells in the grounds, or cut into a hillside, where winter ice could be stored. The wells were used too, as cool stores for meat and butter, so dairies and butchers in town often had ice wells. One was found in Grays Inn Road a few years ago. They can be found all over the country and architects in London come across them quite frequently when they begin to build on old sites.
Canals, shallow and slow-moving, became a common source of ice. One can imagine that boatmen, with their boats fast-frozen and no money coming in, were only too happy to supply the demand. Thus canal ice, full of dead dogs and other impurities, arrived in restaurant kitchens and in the drinks at London clubs. William Leftwich, a confectioner and pastry-cook, who probably also made ice cream, set up a business to supply ice to high-class West End restaurants and customers.
His first ice well was at Cumberland Basin, conveniently close to the wealthy Regent’s Park houses. Dug in 1825, it was 82 feet deep, 34 feet across and had a capacity of 1,500 tons. It was egg shaped, with a drainage well extending to the chalk, 300 feet below. The Camden Town wells were built in the 1830s and still Leftwich was the only ice seller in the London directories.
It was not until 1857-8 that the man who was to become the biggest competitor, appeared on the scene. He was Carlo Gatti, who also came from the catering and confectionery trade. Gatti set up an ice house at New Wharf Road, near King’s Cross, in the premises now occupied by the Canal Museum and where his two ice wells are open to the public.
Instead of canal ice, Leftwich began to import ice from lakes in the clean Norwegian countryside. This was crystal clear, and soon became very popular. The frozen lakes were ploughed in two directions with narrow cutters to divide the ice into blocks. These were then wrapped and brought by sea to Limehouse and along the Regent’s Canal. Besides ordinary ice, Leftwich advertised Ice Pyramids, large blocks of ice carved to shape and decorated with flowers. These were used as table decorations at banquets and, as they melted, served to keep the air cool.
In April 1839, Leftwich was given permission to construct a dock, later called the Ice Wharf, on the south side of the Regents Canal at Camden Town. Earlier, two wharfs had been cut slightly to the east, but the site of the present 34-36 Jamestown Road was then still farmland.
Two ice wells are shown on the 1891 Goad Fire Insurance maps, one at the canal end of the Ice Wharf and the larger one near Jamestown Road. An old photograph shows the Ice Wharf with two cranes, one over each well. In 1912 the wells were capped with reinforced concrete. On 21 November 1995, the reinforced capping over the larger ice well was opened up and an abseiler descended, with a strong torch in his helmet and a measuring tape. The well was a deep brick cylinder with a domed roof and a small sump below, so that melt water could be pumped away. At the bottom was a wooden platform of heavy timber on which the ice blocks used to stand. These blocks, weighing from two to four hundredweight each, were separated from each other and from the brick walls, by layers of straw, which insulated them and allowed the melt water from the ice to escape. By 1995, the wooden platform was like peat.
The walls, which appear to have been in very good condition and dry, are in London Stock brick-work, laid in English bond. They may have been built from the top downwards, in a series of ‘lifts’ each about 1.6 metres high. Bands of brick-work of this height vary slightly in colour - yellow, yellow with pink borders, yellow-pink mixture, etc. - according to the different firings of the bricks in the kiln. First, a hole would have been excavated about five metres deep and a circular dome built, like an igloo, with a small hole at the top and a second one on the edge of the Ice Wharf, through which the ice would be lowered into the chamber.
This was 5.175 metres (almost 17 feet) in diameter. Then the hole was excavated to a further 1.6 metres and the spoil lifted out in a bucket through the top entry hole. The London Clay was stiff enough to support itself, while the next circle of twenty-one courses of bricks were being laid. Further ‘lifts’ were excavated and built until the full depth of 29×890metres (approximately 100 feet) was reached. This is the equivalent of a ten storey building below ground. In 1873, an article in The Standard reported that the well held no less than 4,000 tons of ice and that it ‘was said to be the biggest in London’. It also reported that that the well was 100 feet deep and 44 ft in diameter. When opened in 1995 it was found to be only 34 feet diameter, so the visible brickwork may be a later relining of a larger well, or it may be a simple compositor’s error.
The drawings, reproduced by kind permission of Mr Tucker, show a section through the ice well, with the two entrances at the top and the sump below, with the remains of the pipe through which melt water was drawn off by pumping and so drained into the canal. The plan shows the circular well with the sump below, only a few inches off centre. Surrounding the well is shown the open fronted brick building where the ice was loaded into carts, for daily delivery to customers. This brick building was still in existence in 1995 when the survey was made.
A second, smaller ice well, lies slightly to the north of the first. Later the canal basins along Jamestown Road were filled in, and the site of the Ice Wells became garaging. When I wrote the original Camden Town book the proposed building had not been built and the ice wells themselves are still there, capped over, ready for whatever may befall. Today we can include a photograph of the new building.
++The New Building over the Ice Wells
The Ice Trade
Norwegian ice imports by Leftwich and others grew rapidly, so that by 1880, nearly 175,000 tons were coming into London alone. Ice carts, especially the yellow and black one belonging to Carlo Gatti, were a feature of London streets right up to the Second World War.3
The ice men descended into the well in the early mornings by a steel ladder and spent up to two hours winching up the ice blocks to the surface. These could weigh from 2 to 4 hundredweight each and might have to be lifted fifty feet or more. The ice was laid in the ‘ice table’, where each man had to split his blocks with an ice pick into smaller pieces, suitable for the customers. These blocks, carefully swathed in sacking for insulation, were then delivered by cart to restaurants, fishmongers, and private houses. The men arrived back at the ice well for a second delivery by 8.30 in the morning. In hot weather, when the demand was high, they could deliver up to four loads a day.
There are many stories of the ice men walking all the way to London each Spring, from their villages in Switzerland, and back again when the cold weather set in. This travelling and the importation of ice have long ceased. Thus the economies of both Norway and Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, where the men were traditionally forced to go abroad for work, were both disrupted by the invention of the common refrigerator.
A complete section of the ice on the river is being ploughed into rectangular blocks. The blocks were then separated, poled to land and winched up a slope into a warehouse for storage and distribution.
There is one interesting note to this story. In Canada the big Ice firm was called Tudor. They were very large and overconfident. A man who had invented the modern system of refrigeration approached them with his new invention. He proposed that they should co-operate with him to exploit the invention but they turned him down. As a result modern refrigeration took over and Tudors faded away.
It had an unexpected effect in Muswell Hill. Beatrix Tudor Hart was one of the Tudor family. She became a teacher and set up Fortis Green Primary School just before the Second World War with old ice money. Later the same source funded the first Scissors Flats ever built. They can be found all over London today, but the first were built by Colin Jones and his wife Jennifer, who was Beatrix Tudor Hart's daughter. This has all been described in The Growth of Muswell Hill, which is now on the web site.