Buildings archaeologists from MOLA recording the interior of the Regent’s Crescent ice house. (PHOTO: MOLA)

Given the recent cold weather, the discovery of a massive underground ‘ice house’, unearthed next to Regent’s Park in London, seems rather fitting. Built in the late 18th century, the subterranean chamber escaped damage during the Blitz bombings that destroyed the houses that stood above it, as well as local rebuilding in the 1960s. It was recently rediscovered by MOLA archaeologists working on behalf of Great Marlborough Estates during the residential development of Regent’s Crescent.

At 7.5m wide and 9.5m deep, the ice house was one of the largest of its kind when it was constructed in the 1780s. Despite dramatic changes to its environment since then, the egg-shaped red-brick structure was found to be in excellent condition, with its entrance passage and vaulted antechamber completely preserved.

Historical documents record that, in the 1820s, the ice house was used by William Leftwich, an ice-merchant and confectioner, to store blocks of ice to supply the houses of wealthy Londoners. Although ice could be collected from local canals and lakes in winter, during the other months of the year it was hard to come by in temperate London, so it was important to make winter ice last as long as possible – hence the construction of specially designed chambers like the recently discovered example.

Ice-trade workers handling enormous blocks of ice harvested from frozen lakes in Norway, c.1900. (PHOTO: London Canal Museum)

At this time, it was fashionable to serve frozen desserts to guests, demonstrating one’s access to this relatively rare and costly substance, but ice was also needed by catering traders, medical institutions, and food retailers. To meet this increasing demand, during a particularly mild English winter, Leftwich was one of the first people to charter a vessel from Great Yarmouth to Norway in order to collect 300 tonnes of ice to transport back to London.

‘Standing inside the cavernous and beautifully constructed ice house at Regent’s Crescent, it is fascinating to think that it would once have been filled with tonnes of blocks of ice that had travelled across the North Sea and along the Regent’s Canal to get there,’ said David Sorapure, Head of Built Heritage at MOLA. ‘The structure demonstrates the extraordinary lengths gone to at this time to serve up luxury fashionable frozen treats and furnish food traders and retailers with ice.’

The ice house has now been designated a Scheduled Monument by Historic England and, once restored, it will be incorporated into the gardens of Regent’s Crescent, which are being designed by Kim Wilkie – the landscape architect behind the gardens at London’s Victoria and Albert and Natural History Museums. It is hoped that the public will be able to access the building at certain times of the year, during archaeological and architectural festivals.

A 3D model of the ice house can be found at https://sketchfab.com/models/28f0dd05f4934fb8adb2683933be0e90.

This article appeared in CA 348.

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