During the summer of 1844, a curious sight appeared in a storefront at 125 Strand, now curiously a Pret A Manger. Every day, shopworkers would put a large block of ice in the window, and since most Londoners had never seen a block of ice during summer it became quite a sensation. James I had commissioned the construction of the first modern ice house in Greenwich Park in 1619, but only for the hoi polloi’s exclusive use.
As a gimmick, a newspaper was placed on the other side of the block of ice enabling passers-by to read the print through the ice, from outside the store looking into the window.
Above the shop window, the sign read: ‘Wenham Lake Ice Company’. Many people supposed Wenham could boast of a huge volume of ultra-pure water. In fact, this little lake north of Boston has the same stuff that falls from the sky as everywhere else.
That didn’t detract from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert insisting on its use at Buckingham Palace and awarding the company with a Royal Warrant for supplying err…water.
Making ice a commercial proposition became an obsession with Wenham Ice’s owner, Frederic Tudor. The first shipment of 300 tons melted as customs deliberated on how to classify frozen water moored at a London dock. Shipowners were reluctant to accept what they expected to remain on the outside of their vessels, and not sloshing about inside making the ship unstable. He had to create a market when none existed, work out how to cut and lift the stuff, store it and secure trading rights.
For several decades, ice was America’s second-biggest crop, measured by weight. It would eventually make Frederic Tudor a wealthy man.
The English proved resistant to his commercialisation of frozen water, preferring to buy the Norwegian stuff, who even changed the name of Lake Oppegaard near Oslo to…Lake Wenham.
A comprehensive account of how ice was supplied to London in the years between the middle and end of the 19th Century can be found at The Canal Museum’s website.