Archaeologists Unveil A Mystery Beneath London Street

Two years ago, the archaeologists of the Museum of London Archaeology were carrying out a restoration project in the neighborhood of The Regent’s Park when they made a surprising discovery. They unearthed a cellar, and after some research, they realized it had been used to store ice during the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians had actually long known that there was an icehouse in this area, but they had never known exactly where it was. After all, it’s just like people say: if you search hard, one way or another you’ll find what you’re looking for. Let’s learn about this captivating story and learn a bit about London’s fascinating history!

#21. 18th-Century London

Undoubtedly, life in London these days is very different from what it was three centuries ago. The city was one of the most important economic centers of the British Empire back then, and let’s not forget that many crucial historical events took place in this city during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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During the 17th century, the Industrial Revolution triggered a series of social, economic, political, and even demographic changes. In fact, the population began to grow extraordinarily, and so did its economy. The construction of new factories demanded hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers. As you may imagine, this triggered a migratory movement from the countryside to the cities, including London.

#20. London Begins To Expand

The economic and demographic growth that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries demanded an improvement of the city’s infrastructure as well as the construction of new residences. Therefore, new neighborhoods emerged outward in all directions. Mayfair concentrated a large part of the wealthy population in the west.

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Furthermore, the opening of new bridges across the Thames enabled access to the south, where many poor workers settled. It’s also worth mentioning that throughout the 18th century, many iconic buildings were built, some of which still exist today. An example is the stunning St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was completed in the year 1710. But how was life for people in London during that time? Let’s find out in the next slide.

#19. Social Inequality

The local companies grew rapidly, but so did the gap between both social classes. Only a limited privileged sector benefited from the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. The highest class, the aristocracy, had great power and possessed most of the land. They lived in mansions and enjoyed activities such as going to the theater and the opera. The truth is that most of London’s population lived in small houses without much to eat. The lower class lived in apartments which often housed over four people per room.

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Uncles, children, grandparents, and grandchildren would live in a single residence. Housing was expensive, so all the members of the family worked. In fact, children and adolescents were no exception. Children were forced to work from a very young age in different environments, often in factories with highly dangerous jobs. What was the government doing about this? You will find out on the next slide.

#18. Precarious Living Conditions

As the decades went by, the labor force began to be replaced by new machinery. The people who dedicated themselves to manual labor had to change their jobs and adapt to a new life surrounded by machines. The government simply didn’t assist people unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. Many lower-class children suffered from diseases due to drinking contaminated water and to their unhygienic living conditions. Moreover, since they slept in overcrowded rooms, if a child got sick, others would quickly become infected.

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It’s difficult for us to be aware that the things we have today —which we think are elementary— were luxuries at that time. Many basic goods were inaccessible to the lower class back then. Something as simple as ice, in the 18th century, couldn’t be afforded by most people. Prepare yourself, the protagonist of our story is about to enter the scene.

#17. Ice, A Privilege Of The Royalty

Certainly, ice wasn’t always within our reach. Before ice became widely available in factories, and later in households, it was impossible for anyone in England to have the resources to store it properly. That’s why only royalty had access to it. Do you have any idea how you would store ice without the comfort of your refrigerator?

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Well, at that time, the ice house was a solution. An icehouse isn’t literally a house made of ice. Please, don’t imagine an igloo! Actually, it’s more like an early freezer. It’s a place where people could store ice or even preserve food, just like in 2019. It was King James I who ordered the assembly of England’s first-ever ice house, built in London’s Greenwich Park. After all, ice was a royalty’s thing!

#16. What Were The Ice Houses Like?

It’s clear that modern refrigeration hadn’t yet been invented, but that didn’t deter the English from wanting to easily access the ice. As we know, at that time it wasn’t possible to create artificial ice so it had to be collected in local waterways and stored in underground ice houses. But these ice houses looked different over time. Those that were built before the 17th century were more akin to ice “pits”.

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Usually, ice houses were built underground. The most important feature of its design was the internal temperature to keep the ice cold enough. This task became much easier as the ice volume became larger. Because of this, the ice houses were prepared to store a great deal of ice, which allowed the rich to impress their guests when they served cold dishes during the hottest months of summer. In 1660, for example, King Charles II ordered the construction of an ice house in Green Park, known then as Upper St. James’s Park.

#15. Everyone Wanted Their Ice Houses

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and with the increasingly broad class division, the rich saw their wealth increase. By the 18th century, more and more people could afford to build ice houses on their large properties. Even though this meant that ice houses were no longer exclusive to the royals, they weren’t exactly widely available, either. Many people had become wealthy and when these people built huge villas and houses in the capital, they also built ice houses to go with them.

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In addition to keeping cold drinks, there were more uses for ice in the 18th century in London. Can you guess which? I’ll give you a clue… they also had high demand from medical institutions, including dentists, whose staff would use ice as a kind of local anesthetic. And, of course, it was an incredibly useful tool for anyone who worked with food and drinks.

#14. Ice Workers

How and when did the workers enter the ice houses? Icehouse workers would descend into the chamber to collect pieces of ice when necessary. The ice would then be delivered to customers, such as restaurants owners, doctors, and dentists, through a horse-drawn carriage. But unlike the ones owned by the royalty, these ice houses needed to be easily accessible. In other words, they had to be built in central locations, or else delivering the ice would be a very difficult task.

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Now, you probably understand why a team of archaeologists recently discovered a huge ice house underneath the busy streets of London. The group had actually been working on the remodeling of a series of houses on the edge of Regent’s Park, which had originally been designed by John Nash, the architect who designed Buckingham Palace. Therefore, little did they expect to come across such a striking finding.

#13. The Secret Is Unearthed

The real estate developer Great Marlborough Estates was working on renovating Nash’s homes. And even though the architects and archaeologists had carried out a lot of research before the project began, they had no clue about the structure that rested underneath one of the house’s garden. What they did know was that many of the buildings of that area had been destroyed during the Second World War.

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While the royal residences had been destroyed, the ice house that was below the surface remained intact. And when archaeologists found the gigantic underground structure, they made an incredible discovery, one that revealed a chilling secret about the capital city’s past. You don’t want to miss how this continues!

#12. A Commercial Ice House

This huge ice house, located under Regent’s Crescent in Marylebone, tells us a lot about the history of London because it wasn’t built to serve a mansion or a farm like the ones we have described above. On the contrary, the size of this ice house suggested that it served a completely different function.

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The archaeologists soon revealed that the structure discovered was the oldest known example of a specially designed commercial ice house. So far, all the ice houses discovered in London had belonged either to the royalty or very wealthy families and thus served a private use. However, this ice house was way bigger, and the team of archaeologists concluded that it had once served as a commercial store. Thanks to its size, the ice house could store huge amounts of frozen water.

#11. The House Of Samuel Dash

Let’s share what the archaeologists found out about this hidden structure. This ice house was originally built for a man named Samuel Dash in the 1780s, supposedly because of his links to the alcohol industry. Historians assume that the ice well was used during this period to store the ice collected during the winter from the nearby Regent’s Park Basin.

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Originally, the ice stored there came from nearby canals, and this was as unpleasant as you can imagine. The ice was obtained from local ponds and canals, but these waters were often very contaminated. I know what you’re thinking! How did this “business” even prosper?

#10. Ice In The 19th Century

In the early 19th century, luckily for Nash, the ice trade boomed. He partnered with a well-known confectionery and ice merchant named William Leftwich. Instead of retrieving the water from the contaminated canals, Leftwich imported huge blocks of ice from lakes in Norway. In turn, Leftwich used Nash’s ice house to store his products. After all, it was a win-win situation.

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Frustrated by his inability to store food, especially dairy products, during the summer months, Leftwich was one of the first to realize that the widespread use of ice to preserve food would be highly beneficial and enormously profitable. This has just begun…

#9. Ice Imports

In 1822, Leftwich imported 300 tons of high-quality Norwegian ice to London, which he stored in his giant ice house. The ice house’s structure was such that the workers could access its interior through a small corridor and chip off some ice.

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After chipping off the ice, it would be transported to the different customers by a horse-drawn cart. The ice house’s store delivered its ice mainly to restaurants and medical institutions, though to some wealthy private individuals as well.

#8. What Was Inside?

Archaeologists had to dig the well of the ice store to investigate it, which took them nearly three months. The well was 24 feet wide and 31 feet deep, so imagine the amount of ice that it could hold! Crazy, right? But investigating the well was far from easy. Can you guess why?

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Even though this structure had survived the bombings of World War II, it was full of debris. Therefore, before carrying out the investigation, the team of archaeologists had to excavate the well, which took them nearly 3 months!

#7. The Ice House’s Structure

Once the excavation was complete and once they had got rid of the debris, the archaeologists were able to examine the logistics behind the immense storage space. They noticed that there were several markings on the walls, which suggested that there may have once been a pair of doors that allowed access to the ice.

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If these doors ever existed, they probably had some sort of insulation, in order to prevent the ice from melting. According to David Sorupare, a staff member of the Museum of London Archaeology, the doors were probably made out of wood and clad in leather.

#6. The Importance Of The Discovery

All of the museum’s archaeologists were surprised by this finding. Even though English historians already knew that ice houses existed back then, there was little information regarding how they had been built. Without a doubt, this discovery gave them insight into how London’s ice trade worked during the 18th century and as to how the structures were built.

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This discovery also led them to believe that back then, there were probably hundreds of smaller ice houses scattered throughout the city. This leads to two possibilities: either the smaller ice houses were destroyed over time or during the wars, or they still exist but remain unearthed. Which do you think is the case?

#5. The Ice House That Made The Difference

According to Sorapure, this finding also bridged the gap between the time in which ice was a privilege of the aristocracy and the time in which ice became a mass-produced product accessible to the average citizen. This ice house was probably one of the first – if not the first – major commercial ice store of its time, and its existence explains this change.

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The surface of this ice house was so large that it opened the possibility of having ice throughout the year for the entire population of 18th-century London. The existence of vast ice stores such as this one meant that people no longer needed to build their own private ice store – like the royals did the century before – but now had the possibility of buying small pieces of ice.

#4. The Jubilee Line

But there was one thing that left the archaeologists puzzled. Even though the London Underground Railway Network is one of the largest in the world, its construction had apparently never affected the ice house. How did this underground structure manage to remain intact?

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In fact, the railway’s Jubilee line runs 26 feet below the structure. This means that if you go inside the ice house, you may feel the trains passing below you. Was it sheer luck? Or did the 18th-century architects know that there were underground ice stores when they built the railway system? Nobody knows the answer, yet.

#3. Scheduled Monument

This ice house is so important that Historic England has designated it as a scheduled monument. In fact, several conservation projects will be carried out, along with the construction of a viewing corridor to allow public access.

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In fact, as part of its work on the area, Great Marlborough Estates plans to restore the structure to its prime. And this won’t be so simple since the well that you see in the picture is not the only structure that needs to be restored. The site of the monument comprises an immense elliptical area that is defined to protect the entire underground structure, including a passageway and a chamber located to the east. Now, are you interested in learning what happened with the other ice houses? Keep on reading to find out!

#2. The Sad Fate Of Most

This ice house survived in good condition, with an intact brick interior. Today it retains its circular plan and its main features, which include a ventilation hole or opening, a red brick-clad chamber, an entrance passage, a previous chamber, and evidence of internal chambers. It’s a rare example of a large, well-preserved urban ice-well.

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It’s fortunate, then, that no one has ever torn down this particular ice house. After all, this is what happened to many other similar houses in the United Kingdom. Later, when refrigerators became widespread in the next century, ice houses often became warehouses, greengrocers, or even garden sheds. But this one was clearly an exception.

#1. Two Centuries Recovered

This discovery allows the world to gain insight into life in 18th-century London. In other words, it has allowed us to reconstruct London’s Medieval history and – why not? – a whole tradition. Besides, this site has a unique cultural value, since the future restoration projects will allow tourists to visit it.

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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 fascinating. Have you ever imagined the history of the ice trade? Have you ever considered ice to be a privilege of certain sectors of society? If you ask me, this is just another example where reality outdoes fiction.

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