TAKE A LOOK AT... (in Derbyshire)

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13th January 2003 (p7), reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.


The ice harvest, had we needed to gather it, would have been poor this year. Not that it would have mattered to most of us, domestic refrigeration used to be exclusive to just the few large houses which had an ice house.

Ice houses came into general use from the late 17th century. Sometimes they were used as refrigerators, or probably even freezers, but mostly contained only the ice which was to be taken indoors as required to keep food fresh in the larders.

Out of doors the main store of ice could be kept frozen from one winter to the next in an ice well or an ice house. The former was a brick or stone-lined pit, wholly or completely subterranean. It was usually shaped like an inverted egg so that the whole surface was arched, pressure of the earth keeping every brick in place. The latter generally consisted of a four-sided, roofed chamber built above ground but with its floor below ground level.

Both types were ideally sited in the shade of large trees and completely covered with a mound of earth for insulation; where possible an ice house was built into a bank for the same reason. All types were further insulated from the outside air by a short passage between an outer and inner door at ground level.

Methods of storage varied slightly. Sometimes the ice was crushed then packed tightly in straw, otherwise ice and straw were built up in separate layers. A drain or soak-away lay at the base of the storage area to keep it free of melt water; moisture melts ice as quickly as warmth.


The ice usually came from a nearby shallow pond. A typical layout survives in Chatsworth Park, although the ice house, built in 1693, has now been bricked up for safety reasons. The adjoining pond has a controlled feed and outlet as it was flooded only when the hard frosts were about to do their work. It was always kept scrupulously clean, even so there was sometimes a problem of swan droppings getting into the ice.

Once the ice had formed to the depth of about an inch it was cut with spades and further broken up with long poles, to be dragged along to the adjoining ice house. There it was dropped down a chute in the top of the chamber whilst a man down below broke it into much smaller pieces. The process was repeated as often as the weather allowed.

After a good frosty winter the chamber was full. To begin with the ice could be removed through the opening in the roof, but as the level dropped it was fetched out through the door and by autumn the dwindling supplies had to be brought out by ladder. Chatsworth ice house was used until the late 1930s, although few others are known to have been used after about 1920.


Another early stone-built ice house survives in the former grounds of Middleton Hall near Youlgreave. Behind a low door in a semi-circular wall of dressed stone is a flagged passage leading to a small squarish chamber, the sides of which extend into a deep subterranean pit. The overall interior height is about twenty feet, whilst all that is visible above ground is the front with its curtain of ivy, built against an arched mound of earth barely six feet high.

About ten years ago the ice house proved to be a convenient dump during a day's snow clearance, and snow still stood in the pit right through the following summer.

The Rookery at Ashford in the Water also has an ice house and the same use has sometimes been attributed to a handsome square building on Castle Hill, Bakewell. However its date-stone of 1831 apparently links it with the town's first piped water supply.

Although mechanical refrigeration was a mid 19th century innovation it has only come into widespread domestic use comparatively recently. A patent for artificial ice was taken out as early as 1842, and many thousands of tons were imported to England from America. It became possible to obtain ice all year round and it could be delivered almost anywhere by rail, one London ice dealer quoting from four to six shillings per hundredweight. Probably the last ice house to be built locally was that which around 1890 was added to the new Darley Dale Hydropathic Establishment, now St. Elphin's School, where today it is just a very cool outbuilding with a particularly thick insulated door.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13th January 2003.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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