An Ice House Hidden Below London For 200 Years Has Revealed A Chilling Secret About The City’s Past

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For more than two centuries, an enormous ice house has remained hidden beneath the streets of London, England. But now, a team of archaeologists renovating the area has rediscovered the fascinating structure. And what it tells us about the capital city’s captivating history is truly extraordinary.

Image: via Wikipedia

Life in 18th-century London was inordinately different to that of the English capital today. And it was a time of change too; the country’s population was booming, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to take shape, and London was at the epicenter. Yes, the city was an important hub within the expanding British Empire.

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A multitude of landmark events occurred in London throughout the 1700s, in fact. For instance, between 1706 and 1707, two Acts of Union brought together England and Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain. Previously, the same monarch ruled both countries, but they had separate parliaments and separate kingdoms.

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In 1710, meanwhile, construction finished on the esteemed architect Christopher Wren’s crowning glory: St. Paul’s Cathedral. The magnificent structure still stands today and came to fruition at a time of major growth for London. Indeed, the 18th century saw not only wide-sweeping political change for London and Great Britain, but physical growth for the capital too.

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London’s limits in fact pushed outward in all directions. Towards the west of the city, brand new neighborhoods, such as Mayfair, sprung up for the wealthy populace. Meanwhile, South London became more accessible thanks to the opening of new bridges across the Thames, and an expanding Port of London pulled the East End even further out.

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And local businesses naturally enjoyed the fruits of this accelerated growth. Coffee houses, for instance, were a staple of the period and earned a reputation as gathering spots to discuss ideas. But set against the backdrop of this economic boom was a burgeoning class divide, which only grew wider as the years went on.

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For the tiny number of wealthier folks in the capital, life was good. Yes, the rich lived in enormous mansions, indulging in luxuries including the theater and opera. But for the less well-off, life was undoubtedly difficult. You see, the majority of London’s population lived off plain, basic diets and resided in cramped housing.

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What’s more, back then, there was no such thing as welfare; the government simply didn’t provide assistance for people unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. And unemployment became all too common in the 18th century, as the Industrial Revolution saw many jobs taken by machines. Meanwhile, half of all children born didn’t make it past their second birthday – largely owing to the terrible living conditions of the era.

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This economic divide, then, meant that very few people experienced the luxuries of the day; such delights were simply unattainable by the lower classes. This is something that you might find surprising, though, given that we certainly wouldn’t call them luxuries by today’s standards. For instance, hardly anyone in 18th-century London could enjoy something as seemingly basic as ice.

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After all, before ice became widely available in factories – and, later, in homes with the invention of the refrigerator – it was notoriously difficult to source. In fact, the scarcity of ice in England once meant that only royalty had access to it, as they were the only ones with the resources to store it properly.

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It was King James I, in fact, who ordered the assembly of England’s first ever ice house in 1619. The structure was built in London’s Greenwich Park, but if you’re picturing an igloo, think again: an ice house isn’t a house made literally of ice. Rather, it’s a place where people could store ice or even preserve food, much as in an early freezer.

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Ice houses were typically built underground and engineered with their internal temperature in mind. You see, keeping ice cool gets easier as the volume increases – and this is because its relative surface area is minimized. Ice houses were intended to store great quantities of ice, then. And the frozen water could be further protected from rapid thawing by walls, straw insulation and a roof.

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And it was these modern design decisions that set the ice houses of the 17th century apart from their previous counterparts, which were more akin to ice “pits.” Over the next few decades, though, the structures remained the preserve of the royals. In 1660, for instance, King Charles II – an advocate of modern technology – had one built in Green Park, which was then known as Upper St. James’s Park.

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And this ice house wasn’t just a win for modern science in 17th-century England, of course; it also had a practical benefit for Charles II. That’s right, the structure meant that the king could impress his guests with cold drinks – even under the hot summer sun. The Upper St. James’s Park ice store was so favored, in fact, that Edmund Waller even wrote a poem about it a year after its construction.

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By the 18th century, then, ice house construction had increased – and they weren’t just for royals anymore. With the class divide in London growing ever wider, the rich saw their wealth increase to even greater levels. And this meant that more people could afford to build ice houses on their grand estates.

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The Industrial Revolution, meanwhile, had made many more people newly wealthy. And when these people built enormous villas and houses in the capital, they also constructed ice houses to go with them. But while these ice stores were no longer exclusive to the royals, they weren’t exactly widely available, either.

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Yes, ice houses were still only available to the rich. And there were more uses for ice in 18th-century London than simply keeping drinks cold. For instance, the frozen water was likely in demand from medical institutions, including dentists who would use the ice as a kind of local anesthetic. But, of course, ice was also an incredibly useful tool for anyone working with large quantities of food and drink.

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For anyone thinking of serving up a feast, though, a regular ice house – like the one you’d find on the grounds of an estate – might not do the trick. Indeed, such people would likely need something far bigger; they’d need a structure which could store a huge amount of ice. And ideally, it would need to be accessible and in a central location.

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Well, as you might have guessed, that’s exactly what a team of archaeologists discovered in 2015. The group had been working on redeveloping a series of houses on the edge of Regent’s Park, you see, when they unearthed an enormous ice house sitting right underneath the streets of London.

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Interestingly, the houses on the site were originally designed by John Nash – the architect behind Buckingham Palace. These properties were annihilated during World War II, though, before then being reconstructed in the 1960s. Now, property developer Great Marlborough Estates is working on renovating Nash’s houses. And while much research had gone into the project, the structure concealed beneath the buildings’ gardens wasn’t discovered until the archaeologists began digging up the site.

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You see, while the original residences had been destroyed, the ice house that lay below the surface remained intact. And when the archaeologists found the gigantic subterranean structure, they made an incredible discovery – one that’s revealed a chilling secret about the capital city’s past.

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In fact, the huge ice house, located below Regent’s Crescent in Marylebone, fills in a hole in London’s history. That’s because this structure isn’t just a regular ice house that you might have found on an estate. No, the size of this ice house suggested that its purpose was altogether more grand.

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Yes, according to experts, the structure is actually the earliest-known example of a purpose-built commercial ice house. So, while most other examples from the time were for private use, a commercial store would mean ice was available to far more people. And thanks to its size, this particular ice house could store enormous amounts of frozen water.

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The ice house was originally built for a man called Samuel Dash in the 1780s. Dash had ties to the alcohol industry, and originally the ice stored in his structure would have come from the nearby canals. And the water in those conduits was about as unpleasant as you’d expect. Indeed, nothing that was floating in the canal when the water froze would have been filtered out.

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In the early 19th century, however, the ice trade boomed, and Dash’s ice house was put to much better use. Yes, instead of retrieving ice from dirty English canals, William Leftwich began bringing in huge blocks from Norway’s frozen lakes. A notable confectioner and ice merchant, Leftwich took over Dash’s structure and used it to store his frozen product.

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In 1822, Leftwich sailed to Norway, where he loaded up his vessel with 300 tons of lake-sourced ice. He then sailed back to England and traveled up the newly-constructed Regent’s canal – which brought him directly to the enormous ice house. And once there, he lowered the ice blocks inside via an opening in the top of the structure.

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The ice was then stored inside the giant structure, with workers able to access the interior through a small corridor. When needed, ice would be chipped off before being transported to various nearby establishments by horse-drawn cart. Restaurants, private individuals and possibly even medical institutions would all have been served by the ice house’s store.

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And with the ice house standing at 24 feet wide and 31 feet deep, it’s easy to visualize the vast amount of frozen water that it could hold. But while the structure itself survived the bombing during the war, debris from the surface now filled it. Before the archaeologists could properly investigate the structure, then, they had to excavate it – a process that took three months.

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But with the excavation complete, the archaeologists could properly examine the logistics behind the immense storage space. Markings on the walls, for instance, indicated that there may have once been a pair of doors that allowed access to the ice. And these gates would likely have had some kind of insulation, too, in order to keep the frozen water inside from melting.

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In fact, David Sorapure, the Museum of London Archaeology’s head of built heritage, spoke to the BBC about the discovery. He explained that the doors were likely constructed from wood and clad in leather. And the gates were probably once stuffed with straw, too, much in the same way that the ice was insulated with hay during transport.

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But the structure itself wasn’t an entirely new discovery. “There was always an understanding that there was an ice house here somewhere, but we weren’t sure where,” Sorapure told The Guardian in December 2018. “Even after we discovered where the entrance was, we weren’t quite sure how big it was, or how you got in.”

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But even if the existence of the ice house wasn’t brand-new information, its rediscovery has given archaeologists and historians a crucial link to London’s forgotten ice trade. Indeed, while there were possibly thousands of ice houses in 18th-century London, they were likely quite small – in comparison to this one, at least.

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“What this [ice house] does and why it is significant, is it bridges the gap between [the time when] ice was only for the very wealthy, to a kind of mass availability of ice, which you get from the 1830s and 40s,” Sorapure told The Guardian. “And this occupies that 50-year space. It’s ice for everyone, eventually.”

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That’s right: it’s ice houses such as Samuel Dash’s that opened up the prospect of year-round ice to the larger population. With enough ice inside, the surface area is small enough to allow it to retain the necessary temperature all year. And that meant people could afford to just buy a portion at a time rather than storing huge amounts on their own.

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“Ice houses previous to this were always built by the aristocracy – large country estates would have one,” Sorapure explained to the BBC. “It’s a way of entertaining your guests with something that was previously only really affordable by the aristocracy… Because of the large commercial ice well, more people are able to access that little luxury.”

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What’s more, considering how vast the London Underground network is, it’s surprising that the Tube hasn’t ever affected the ice house. The Jubilee line runs just 26 feet below the structure, in fact, and if you stand inside the ice house, you can actually feel the trains rumble past beneath you.

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And thanks to the ice house’s significance, Historic England has designated it as a “scheduled monument.” There are also plans to allow the public to access the structure once renovation work on the houses above ground is complete. Indeed, as part of its work on the area, Great Marlborough Estates plans to restore the structure to its prime.

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It’s fortunate, then, that no one filled in this particular ice house. That was ultimately the fate for many other houses at the end of the 19th century, after all. Yes, when refrigerators became widespread, ice houses often became wine cellars, fruit stores or even garden sheds – but not this one.

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“We always knew that Regent’s Crescent, given its existing historical status, would be an incredibly important development for us,” Great Marlborough Estates’ director Grant Lipton told the Financial Times in December 2018. “Little did we know that we would discover one of the finest examples of a Georgian ice house in the country.”

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Incredibly, Samuel Dash’s ice house vanished from public consciousness for two centuries. But its rediscovery has filled in a blank spot in London’s history, providing tangible evidence of the once booming ice trade. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine needing to store ice in vast underground pits. And that just makes the reality of 18th-century life even more extraordinary.

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