The UK's Lost Commercial Ice Industry - The Ice Route from Norway to England

by KathleenDuffy

From the 1820s to the 1890s London merchants imported pure ice from the lakes and fjords of Norway. It was a thriving industry, requiring strength and skill from its workers.

The history of ice storage is a fascinating one, and until recently generally unknown.

In the early 17th century British aristocrats began to build ice houses on their estates. They would ‘harvest’ ice from their own lakes and ponds and store it in underground vaults. This meant they could use it to preserve foods in the summer months, prepare iced drinks and ice cream, and cool their rooms.

Later on entrepreneurs and commercial outlets who required ice in large quantities would turn to Norway for their supplies.

Ice Well in Oakwood Park, London N14
Ice Well in Oakwood Park, London N14

With the growth of the catering industry in the 19th century, ice was used on a large commercial scale for preservation of fish and meat. Popular clubs, hotels and cafes were anxious to offer food to a wider public and therefore there was a wide demand for ice. It is hardly surprising that the first ice merchants were mainly fishmongers.

Regents Canal
Regents Canal

In London the Swiss Italian catering entrepreneur, Carlo Gatti, is believed to have cut his ice from the Regents Canal by way of a special license. Perhaps he sold his ice on to the first London ice merchant, William Leftwich who owned an ice well on the canal at Upper James Street, Camden Town.

With the growing demand for ice it became necessary to import ice from abroad. In the 1840s ice was being imported from as far away as America.

Harvesting Ice in Massachusetts
Harvesting Ice in Massachusetts

However, it was the dynamic entrepreneur, Carlo Gatti, who began importing ice in a big way from Norway. He was the first to facilitate the mass production of ice cream to the general public and to provide ice to other merchants.

Aurora Borealis over Blafjellelva River in Troms County, Norway
Aurora Borealis over Blafjellelva River in Troms County, Norway

How Norwegian Ice was ‘Harvested’

Harvesting the ice was done with great precision. Measurements were as precise as possible. The blocks of ice had to be transported by ship, so it was essential that the blocks fitted into the hold and were easy to handle.

  • When the ice was 1-3  feet thick its surface was cleaned of all leaves, twigs grasses and snow.
  • Ice ploughs drawn by  horses went over the ice cutting it into strips about two feet wide.
Ice-cutting crew at work in the States
Ice-cutting crew at work in the States
  • Men with large handsaws cut these strips into two foot squares, and using giant tongs they hooked  the squares out of the water.
Sawing the Ice into Blocks
Sawing the Ice into Blocks
  • The fjord had steep sides which were furnished with wooden slides. The blocks of ice slid down these chutes to the jetty where they were loaded into the ship’s hold.
Stacking the ice in the ship's hold
Stacking the ice in the ship's hold
Ice guided onto the ship
Ice guided onto the ship
  • For London orders, the sailing ships came to Regent’s Canal Dock, Limehouse. They were unloaded and the ice professionally weighed.
  • The ice was loaded onto a cart or barge and carried to the ice well for storage. It was then      delivered to customers by horse and cart.

Interestingly I can remember, as a child of immigrants  in Toronto, having our ice delivered in a huge block by the iceman - it was 1950 and we didn't have a refrigerator.   The ice block lasted about a week, and the drip, drip, drip was a constant backdrop to our lives.  The iceman was silent and strong - and I remember he had an old sack covering his shoulders to protect them from the cold ice block.

Delivering the ice in London
Delivering the ice in London

Who Worked in the Norwegian Ice Industry?

Ice harvesting was carried out by sailors who were unable to work on board ice ships during the winter months because the ships were icebound. Their casual labour was either in the timber or ice trades. Once the spring thaw began the sailors would sign on as crew again.

Working with ice was gruelling labour and the competition between ships was fierce. Ice was stored in the ship's hold. In spring, whoever made it across the North Sea in record time felt immense pride.

The End of the Norwegian Ice Industry


In the 1890s artificial ice was introduced and the Norwegian ice industry was lost for ever.

According to Felicity Kinross, who interviewed some old icemen who had worked in the industry, there was no comparison between natural ice and the artificial ice which was made from the British water supply. Natural ice was purer and preserved the flavour of the food longer.

The advantages of artificial ice were that it was not dependent on the vagaries of the Norwegian winter or the demands of a British summer.

The shrewd Carlo Gatti embraced the artificial ice industry and his company ran successfully until 1981.


Coffee and Ices: The Story of Carlo Gatti in London by Felicity Kinross (Felicity Kinross, 1991)

Find out more about the History of Ice here: The London Canal Museum, London

Ice-Harvesting Memorabilia

Items from e-bay
Updated: 05/19/2013, KathleenDuffy
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