If you were a wealthy socialite back in early Victorian London, serving fashionable ice-cold food would have been quite an ordeal. To keep ice frozen, in the days before freezers, it would have to be hand-chipped from man-made underground caverns, wrapped in hay and carted off to your house on horseback – making ice a bit of a status symbol. Now archaeologists have started to rediscover London’s long-forgotten ice trade, with the recent excavation by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) of London’s oldest subterranean ‘ice house’.
This recently discovered brick cavern, which was previously believed to have been destroyed during the Blitz, sits only ten metres above the tunnels of the Jubilee line close to Regent’s Park, under Regent’s Crescent in Marylebone. Originally built in the 1780s, from the 1820s onwards it was integral to the London ice trade, thanks to ice merchant William Leftwich. Upon hearing about the uncleanliness of the ice then available in London, Leftwich chartered a vessel across the North Sea, landing in Norway and filling his boat with 300 tons of fjord ice – which he then ambitiously shipped back to London and up the Regent’s Canal, to this very cavern.
Developers from Great Marlborough Estates are now talking about opening the ice house up to the public, but for now, there’s no set opening date. So if you desperately want to check out this bit of secret London history, you’ll have to cool it.