STAFFORDSHIRE ICE HOUSES
Before there were freezers there were ice houses, man-made structures into which ice and snow was compacted and stored after being collected from frozen lakes and ponds during the winter months.
It was only the wealthy landowners who could afford to have an ice house built (some estates had more than one). They were usually built under ground, into rock or built at ground level, these then being covered with earth to aid insulation.
Ice houses varied in shape, size and design, some being very ornate so as to blend in with the landscape, but common features are a deep chamber for the ice, which was several feet deep and usually with a soak way to deal with the melted ice. Also a corridor leading from the outside, mostly brick-lined with one or more connecting doors and a domed brick-lined ceiling. It was recommended that ice houses be positioned facing north to keep the structure as cold as possible.
When the weather was cold enough and the lakes or ponds frozen over, the ice was collected by the estate workers and taken to the ice house when it was pulverised and packed tightly into the chamber, with straw being added to the wall of the chamber, again to aid insulation and to keep the ice as cold as possible. Salt was sometimes added in layers to encourage the freezing process.
It was a hard and uncomfortable job, an entry in “Country House Brewing In England 1500-1900” by Pamela Sambrook says, ‘At Trentham in 1848 94 pints of ale (55.4 litres) was issued to the men who took on the annual January task of filling the ice house.’ It was probably to help them keep warm.
When summer arrived the ice would then be used to preserve food such as fish, poultry, game etc., from quickly decaying in warm weather. The ice would also be used in the making of ice cream and to chill cold foods and drinks.
There is some evidence of ice houses being around in medieval times, possibly by monks who were very adept in self-sufficiency and food preservation, but ice houses began to gain popularity in the early 17th century and continued to do so up to the late 19th century when modern forms of refrigeration were developed.
This caused the ice house to become obsolete and many of them fell in to decay or were filled in or demolished. Thankfully some do still survive and have become listed buildings.
Here in Staffordshire we have a few examples and I have begun to visit and photograph them and also try to discover their individual history, so I shall be adding more photographs.
Most of the ice houses are on private property, so permission should always be obtasinbed to visit them.
'Ice Houses' by Tim Buxhaum, Shire Publications
'Some Midland Ice-Houses' by F.W.B. Yorke, Birmingham Archaeological Society Transactions Vol 72, 1954