London Archaeologists Unearth Subterranean Georgian-Era Ice Store

The entrance to the cavernous chamber, which was used to hold ice before the advent of modern refrigeration, was covered up following the Blitz

Buildings archaeologists from MOLA record the interior of the Regent's Crescent ice house (c) MOLA BANNER.jpg
Ice merchants stored imported blocks of frozen Norwegian fjords in this massive egg-shaped structure Courtesy of MOLA

Procuring an ice cube today is as simple as opening the freezer and pulling out an ice tray. But back in Georgian England, the endeavor wasn’t quite so easy (or cheap). Still, Esther Addley reports for The Guardian, if you were a member of London's elite, finding high-quality ice was far from an impossible task. All you had to do was import it from Norway—yes, just like the opening sequence to Frozen.

Those straw-insulated blocks of frozen fjords would be stored in cavernous underground storage units, alternatively dubbed ice stores, wells or houses, ready to cater to the well-to-do of London. Archaeologists have long debated the exact location of one such ice store that served the city’s 18th- and 19th-century upper class, but thanks to the efforts of researchers from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), the elusive structure—complete with entrance passage and vaulted ante-chamber—has been found in a neighborhood just south of London’s Regent’s Park.

Initially constructed during the 1780s by Samuel Dash, an entrepreneurial individual with ties to the brewing industry, the egg-shaped brick chamber rocketed to prominence under ice-merchant and confectioner William Leftwich, who oversaw the ice store during the 1820s. According to MOLA, Leftwich capitalized on the potential of imported ice by commissioning a vessel to bring 300 tons of Norwegian ice back to England in 1822. Unlike ice collected from local bodies of water, which often yielded an unsanitary and unreliable supply, frozen fjords offered an unparalleled level of quality, enabling clients to “serve up luxury fashionable frozen treats,” in the words of MOLA Head of Built Heritage David Sorapure.

Leftwich’s bold gamble was not without risk: As MOLA notes, previous import schemes had resulted in cargo lost at sea, useless pools of melted ice, and plenty of headaches for customs officials, who were uncertain how to tax the unusual product. But Leftwich was lucky, Addley writes for The Guardian. He transported the (still frozen) blocks via Regent’s canal, then lowered them directly into the ice store through an opening at the top of the chamber.

Hay insulation, as well as the underground nature of the store, which stretched 25 feet wide and 31 feet deep, kept ice in prime selling condition. Danny Harrison, senior archaeologist at MOLA, tells Addley that workers tasked with retrieving blocks for customers—including restaurant owners, private parties and even medical establishments—used a small entrance corridor to gain access to the makeshift freezer and chip off ice as needed. Deliveries were made via horse-drawn cart, according to Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky.

By the end of the 1800s, ice stores had become increasingly overshadowed by modern refrigeration techniques. The Financial Times’ James Pickford notes that many of the structures were converted into garden sheds, fruit stores or wine cellars. But the Regent’s Crescent ice store, which boasted an impressive aboveground neighbor—namely, a series of neoclassical stucco terraces designed by John Nash, architect of Buckingham Palace and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion—remained largely intact until the advent of World War II.

As the Nazi blitzkrieg transformed London into a city of rubble, it razed the terraces situated above the subterranean unit and, despite leaving the chamber itself intact, masked its entrance until archaeologists’ recent rediscovery.

For now, the newly designated Historic England scheduled monument remains closed to the public, but MOLA states that the team hopes to allow access to the chamber at certain times of the year, such as holidays or during archaeological festivals.

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