There haven’t always been refrigerators – we get so used to having one in our kitchen but a hundred years ago this was not so. Refrigerators only became available from around 1910 and were an item only for the rich. It was not until the 1930’s that refrigerators became common in American homes and not until after 1950 that they were general in England .
The old Ordnance Survey Map of Polesden Lacey in the picture marks an ‘Icehouse‘ some distance from the house in the woods known as Preserve Copse and next to what is now the crab apple tree field and previously the old car park. There is no sign of any structure in this position now but it is present on the maps of both 1897 and 1919. There is however a totally redundant five bar gate standing alone and leading into the wood near this point and it is highly likely that this marked the track (shown on the map) along which the supplies of ice were brought. A building is still known as the ‘icehouse’ at Polesden Lacey but it is simply a storage area at the side of the house near the old kitchens. Electricity supplied by her own generator was available throughout Mrs Greville’s time (1906 – 1942) and undoubtedly this new ‘icehouse’ was refrigerated by electric power. Presumably the ‘icehouse’ in the woods was made redundant in the changes made by Mrs Greville to the house.
Before refrigeration in houses of the rich a building was constructed to house ice usually made of brick, sometimes quite extensive with a passage into it. The building was often semi-submerged in the ground with an entrance below ground level together with some entry point above ground through which ice could be tipped or loaded. Most country estates had some such structure usually in the grounds of the house. In the case of Polesden Lacey it is surprising how far it is from the house – but in those days what else were servants for? The picture shows one such icehouse although this one is largely above ground. The building would be as well insulated as possible, amongst the trees for the maximum shade, thick brick walls and often heaped over with earth to keep the ice from melting.
The building was mainly there to keep a supply of ice so that it was always available for the kitchens of the house. Deliveries of large blocks of ice were brought to the icehouse to be piled and packed inside. It would have been feasible to keep food in the icehouse but this was not the principle purpose – you would not want to keep too much food in the woods in such a building and it would be a long way to have gone to get milk for a cup of tea! The main use was for the servants to be sent over to the icehouse to bring back chippings of the ice to cool food and drinks. Large houses could afford to have their own icehouse but for the many ice could be obtained from horse drawn ice carts deliveries along the streets.
So where did the ice come from? In the winter large blocks of ice were literally sawn out of iced lakes in cold countries such as Scandinavia or Canada to be transported around the world. In the 1800s there was a large trade in ice both for commercial and domestic use. In England the trade was helped in the mid-nineteenth century by the mini ‘ice age’ as reflected in Dickens novels with the extremely cold winters. There were large warehouses built to house ice blocks.
When you stand in your kitchen and put away shopping in the freezer or get out the milk or butter give a thought of what it was like a hundred years ago and how difficult it was to keep things cool or frozen.