19th Century London wanted ice in far greater quantities than the British climate provided. Whilst ice was gathered from lakes, and indeed from the Regent's Canal, and was stored, the amount of ice available was small and its quality often poor. Ice started to be imported from the United States in the 1840's, with the Wenham Lake Ice Company as one of the most famous names in the business. Carlo Gatti brought his first consignment of ice from Norway to London in 1857, of 400 tons, and one of the two ice wells at 12-13 New Wharf Road was almost certainly dug to receive it and store it until it was wanted by customers. Customers wanted ice for food preservation, for making ice cream, and for medical use. In the last 40 years of the century Norwegian ice dominated the market in London. In this page we tell how ice was supplied to London in the years between the middle and end of the 19th Century, after which ice manufactured in factories began to compete with the natural product.
Horse drawn ploughs were used on the mountain lakes of southern Norway which had the merit of accessibility as well as providing supplies of good quality clean ice.
Individual block of ice had to be cut by hand, using metal saws
Once it had been cut, the ice was handled with metal tongs, hinged in the middle. Similar tongs were used for lifting blocks with a crane. An example can be seen in the London Canal Museum - the same type of tools were used in England.
From the lake to the ship ice was slid along wooden ice slides, which included viaducts, curves, and brakes.
The end of the ice railway route was the ship, brought to a loading point, where the ice could be stowed loaded on board.
The ships were loaded at a number of points along the Norwegian coast. Most of the cargoes were loaded along the coast south of Oslo. In the 1890's Norway was exporting 340,000 tons of ice each year.
The ice was carried by ship to Regent's Canal Dock, now called Limehouse basin, in east London. There it was transferred to barges to be drawn by horses along the Regent's Canal.
We cannot be sure whether this picture is loading or unloading, however it shows how the ice dogs were used to lift blocks of ice to or from the hold of a ship, and indeed the same method must have been used when the ice arrived at the ice store which is now the museum. Unfortunately the museum does not have any photographs of ice traffic on the Regent's Canal. The traffic ceased in the early years of the 20th Century and, if any photographs were ever taken, they have probably not survived.
Although there are few records of the operation of the wells, we do know about the delivery of ice to customers, which, using factory made ice, continued well into the twentieth century with relatively little change. Ice was delivered in carts like these - a model made in the late 19th Century is in the museum. The "Ice man" would chip off a block of ice of the size you wanted.
So far as is known, all the images reproduced on this page are either out of copyright, or taken from the collection of the London Canal Museum. Graphics are © Canal Museum Trust. Pictures are available from the museum's online Picture Shop.