As we’re sure you have probably read in the news recently, an eighteenth-century ice house or ice well has been discovered in London.
The egg-shaped cavern, 9.5 metres deep and 7.5 metres wide, had been backfilled with demolition rubble after the terrace was bombed during the war, requiring three months of careful excavation before its structure could be fully revealed.
It appears to have originally been constructed in the 1780s for use in connection with the brewing industry, but it was taken over by a William Leftwich, who used it as an ice well. At the turn of the century, it was mainly the affluent who had an ice house or possibly a well on their land, places such as Chatsworth, Petworth and possibly Kenwood, but William’s idea was on a much larger scale, his aim was to supply commercially, so we thought we would try to find out a little more about his life and business.
William was born July 1770, the son of William and Martha Leftwich, née Barns of Aldford, a village in rural Cheshire. At the end of January 1785, William was apprenticed to James Reynolds, a pastry cook living in Tower Street, London.
Having completed his apprenticeship he became a confectioner and established shops in Fleet Street and Kingston upon Thames (which is where his two youngest children were baptised).
It was in 1795 at St Marys, Newington, Surrey that William married Susanna Ricketts, some eight years his junior. The couple went on to have many mouths to feed, which, being a pastry cook must have helped –William Henry and Thomas Robert (twins) (1796), George (1799-1802), Susannah (1801), Thomas (1803), Eliza (1806), Martha (1807), George (1810), Mary Ann (1813) and finally Charles (1815).
Goodness! William’s wife died in 1818 leaving him to not only run his confectionery business but also to raise the children – so, not an easy task.
Britain had developed a taste for ice in drinks such as sherry cobblers, mint julep and iced desserts and the likes of William struggled to keep dairy foods cool, as did fishmongers. Working class men who owned a donkey or horse and cart would club together, pay rent to the landholder so that when the water was frozen they could collect ice from their water supply which they could then sell on to fishmongers and confectioners for a small profit.
‘Homegrown’ ice was reliant upon the country having a cold winter, thereby allowing ice to be gathered from the frozen rivers, so was unreliable and quantities were somewhat limited.
William hit upon an idea to import ice from Norway and with that, in 1822, he went to Norway where he purchased a large quantity of ice and in May 1822, he chartered a vessel, ‘The Spring’ to sail to Norway to collect it. Apart from the obvious problem of the ice melting it also created problems for customs as when the vessel returned they had no idea how much tax to charge him, so a charge of 20% was levied on his cargo. Concerned by such a high levy William then decided to send vessels elsewhere, mainly America and in doing so, the importation duty was reduced to 5%, making the whole operation more profitable.
It was suggested to him that he had a large well dug on Little Albany Street. This would hold some 1,500 tons of ice. The ice was thrown in and descended on a platform, the waste due to melting, filtered through the sand layer and fell into the space below, from where it ran off by means of a pipe into a deeper and smaller well by the side of the large one. The water, by the means of machinery, was pumped up to supply several neighbouring houses with a fresh supply of water.
The ice was drawn up in buckets and onto a cart (the weight of the cart having previously been determined), then the whole load weighed again to determine the weight of the ice itself. The cost of ice varied between 2 shillings and 2 shillings and 6 pence a load. William also had a further two wells constructed, one being in Wood Street.
As well as selling to London, William also sold to amongst others, the towns of Bath, Cheltenham and Bristol.
William took the trouble to explain in his newspaper advertisements how it could be used to preserve beef during hot weather.
William was quite the entrepreneur and made himself and his family a handsome profit and by 1835, William was a ‘Purveyor of Ice’ to His Majesty, as we see in this newspaper advertisement.
In 1841 we find William living a comfortable life at 43, Cumberland Market, Regent’s Park, with two of his daughters, Susanna and Martha, which was where he was to remain for the remainder of his life. Two of his sons, William and Thomas lived on the same street with their respective families, both still working in the family, with all supplying ice to affluent families in the area.
William was died November 1843 and was buried on 23rd November 1843, at Kensal Green. He died leaving an extremely detailed will in which he provided for all his surviving children. His sons continued the business for some considerable years to come.
Online baptism, marriage and burial registers, census returns, wills and the apprentice register
The Guardian online 28 December 2018
Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser 10 May 1822