The 1790 Ice House at Hampton Mansion&{AT Bombay&Madras}

The 1790 Ice House at Hampton Mansion

Whenever I stay with my family in north Baltimore, I visit Hampton National Historic Site to walk along its extensive grounds. Construction on Hampton Hall began after 1783 and continued well into the 1800s. The Ridgely family once owned 25,000 acres of land, as well as a number of commercial, industrial, and agricultural interests that allowed them to live well and entertain lavishly. They were able to serve ice cream in July with stored ice, an expensive and time-consuming commodity in 19th century America and Great Britain.

Hampton Mansion. The ice house sits at the right (not visible in this image.) Image @vsanborn
Hampton Mansion’s ice house is located near the circular drive and in front of what once was the laundry. From a distance it resembles a grassy knoll.

Ice House at Hampton NHS. Image @vsanborn

Ice House entrance. Image @vsanborn
The entrance is open to visitors. I clambered down the steep stairs with Alan, a park ranger who kindly guided me down the dark pit.

Image @National Park Service
In winter, slaves or paid workers cut large blocks of ice from frozen ponds on the property. They handed them up the hill on sledges. The ice was shovelled through a hatch into the cone-shaped cavity that extends 34 feet below ground.” – Text, National Park Service

Steep stairs down the ice house. Image @vsanborn
Men entered the cavity through the passage and packed the ice down, often pouring water over it to make it freeze. As the ice melted the mass slid down the cone-shaped pit but stayed compact.” –  Text, National Park Service

When the Ridgelys needed ice, a servant would descend into the pit, chip off what was needed, and hoist or carry the load up a ladder and out the passage.” – Text, National Park Service


The Ice House, Mumbai. Courtesy: Tata Central Archives

Scotch Church (left foreground) followed by the domed Ice House (used for storing ice imported from North America), and the Law Court building (Hornby House) beyond it.

Bombay_courthouse1850.jpg(712 × 547 pixels, file size: 154 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
Description Photograph entitled, "Scotch Church, Court-House, and entrance to the Dock-Yard [Bombay]" of view looking north on Apollo Street, with the Scotch Church (left foreground) followed by the domed Ice House (used for storing ice imported from North America), and the Law Court building (Hornby House) beyond it.
Date 1850
Author Charles Scott
(Reusing this file)

May 31, 2015 - ... Science and Technology · In Pictures · Announcements · Bookshop · Pulse ... How ice shipped all the way from America became a luxury item in colonial India ... This was the Bombay Ice House, built in 1843, which stood opposite ... that 350 barrels of apples had all turned rotten, but the American Ice ...

How ice shipped all the way from America became a luxury item in colonial India

In the 19th century, Boston businessman Frederic Tudor started shipping ice from the lakes of New England to the subcontinent.

A white round building, around 16 feet high, complete with domed roof once stood on Apollo Road, now part of Shahid Bhagat Singh Road in south Mumbai. This was the Bombay Ice House, built in 1843, which stood opposite what was then the government dockyard, between the Scottish Church and Hornby House – the latter was once the governor’s house, then become a law court and then the Great Western Hotel. The Ice House was a double-shelled structure and could hold around 150 tonnes of ice.

For almost four decades, 1830 to the 1870, ice in the presidency towns of British India was a luxury item, imported from New England in the US North East. An essay by David Dickason, The 19th century Indo-American Ice Trade, which appeared in the Modern Asian Studies journal in 1991 offers much insight into the subject.

As early as 400 BC, Persian engineers had worked out a technique: ice brought down from mountains was stored in large, thick-walled containers that were placed underground and naturally cooled, according to the essay. The Mughals used Himalayan ice but the British found it an expensive proposition, maintaining ice fields that needed land and was labour intensive, Dickason tells us. There was for long the Hooghly ice, made by freezing water in shallow pits, but this came out quite gritty and slushy and was never really potable.

The ice king

In the 1830s, when Frederic Tudor built his fortunes on the ice trade, he came quite rightly to be called the “ice king”.  We learn from a website on ice harvesting that he was born into a well-regarded Bostonian family but that his fortunes thus far had been poor; even his early investments in ice trade, namely shipping it to states in southern US and the Caribbean, had been only marginal successes. It was his desperation to avoid jail as a debtor when his investments in the coffee trade came to bust that made Tudor enter the risky venture of shipping ice to British India in Calcutta. His collaborators were Samuel Austin and William Rogers, the latter agreeing to become the ice agent for the trade partners in Calcutta.

American merchants had begun trading in India in 1778 when Lord Cornwallis extended the opportunities to them, but transporting and trading in ice was a different matter altogether.  It was 1833 and voyage time across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans normally took four months. But in the last decade of the 19th century, innovations in the ice-harvesting business made such voyages a possibility.

Some of these were largely made by Nathaniel Jervis Wyeth, an associate of Tudor’s, but they would soon fall out. Wyeth invented a twin-bladed, horse-drawn ice-cutter, which meant that ice sheets could be cut up into big squares and then pried out with iron bars. This saved time and increased the productivity of men and horses. These giant cubes could also be packed tightly to quell melting. Wyeth experimented in methods of insulating the ice on board ships, developing for instance, double-walled storehouses insulated with saw dust or tan, a product of tanneries, and accessible  from the roof, to reduce the melting inevitable during a long voyage.

On May 12, 1833, the ship Tuscany, sailed from Boston for Calcutta, carrying 180 tonnes of ice. When it docked at Calcutta on September 6, the ship still had 100 tonnes of ice in its hold. People who gathered were amazed at the giant, icy cubes as they were unloaded and were described by a contemporary historian in his book, available online, on the development of the Massachusetts ice trade as “crystal blocks of Yankee coldness”. A local who reached forward to touch the ice, believed he had been “burnt”, considerably alarming the other onlookers. Another asked the captain of the ship whether ice grew on trees in America.

Thriving trade 

The export of American ice to India soon flourished. Compared with the varieties at that time, this kind of ice was seen as pristine. Massachusetts, located in the high latitudes and on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, produced substantial ice in its freshwater lakes. The purity of the ice cut from Wenham Lake, for instance, which was shipped to London, impressed contemporary scientists such as Michael Faraday, who concluded that this ice melted slowly because it did not contain salt and air bubbles.

Over the next three decades, Calcutta and other presidency towns would become Tudor's most lucrative destinations, bringing him immense profits and making him a millionaire many times over.

Henry David Thoreau, who witnessed ice harvesting in Walden Pond, around which he lived for some years, wrote in 1854 that “the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

But of course, the ice from Walden served the elite Anglian society in the cities, and Tudor secured numerous favours and exemptions from the British. For instance, in the very first trip, William Rogers, the ice agent, secured a few exemptions: the ice was transported directly to warehouses without waiting for customs house formalities. Unloading the ice at night was permitted. In Bombay, ice ships received a favoured docking place and were made duty-free.

In the next few years, ice houses were built by raising funds within the community and then leased out to Tudor at a nominal rent. Tudor’s second voyage, which he financed on his own, could well have been a disaster, considering that 350 barrels of apples had all turned rotten, but the American Ice Committee in Calcutta and Governor General Lord Bentinck took a surprisingly lenient view. Tudor secured a monopoly on the trade in ice, and New England apples, as well as Spanish grapes and American butter, transported along with the ice also soon became expensive, coveted items of trade. Moreover, the ice house was expanded at public expense.

In Bombay, the firm of Jahangir Nuseervanji Wadia distributed the ice and Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy was the first to dispense ice creams at a dinner party. When several among the guests contracted a cold, the Gujarati Bombay Samachar opined that this was a worthy price to pay. In Calcutta, Dwarkanath Tagore expressed an interest to involve himself in ice shipping, but Tudor’s monopoly stayed for some decades more.

Between the years 1856 and 1882, 353,450 tonnes of ice had been shipped out all across South and East Asia and also Australia.  Some of the ice was reserved for medical hospitals in the presidency towns, and in years of low supply, ice was rationed.

Decline and fall

Modern methods of ice-making soon made their advent around the 1870s. Tudor himself died in 1864 and the business passed onto other hands. With industrialisation and the construction of railway lines, there was also more pollution around Boston, which probably affected the quality of the ice. Thoreau noted that timber was cut down from around Walden Pond for the railway lines. Ice companies were formed in India too: the Bengal Ice Company was the first, set up in 1878. Ship-building became increasingly expensive. Ice plants increased in India following the spread of the railway line: 25 in 1904, 66 in 1925.

The Calcutta Ice house was razed to the ground in 1882, the Bombay one served as a warehouse till it was demolished in 1920s. The one in Chennai alone stands today; it was remodelled with circular verandahs and multiple windows to make a residence. Despite its poor ventilation, it did work for some time as a shelter for poor students. It is believed that Vivekananda during his travels through India stayed here for some time.

Besides Thoreau’s mention of ice cutters, this trade, strangely, finds little mention in the literature of the times. An exception is Rudyard Kipling. In his story, ‘The Undertakers’ in the Second Jungle Book, he mentions it in a conversation that takes place between a bird, a crocodile and a jackal in which the bird describes his feelings after having swallowed a seven-pound lump of Wenham Lake ice:

"When I was in my third season, a young and a bold bird, I went down to the river where the big boats come in. The boats of the English are thrice as big as this village.

"From the insides of this boat they were taking out great pieces of white stuff, which, in a little while, turned to water. Much split off, and fell about on the shore, and the rest they swiftly put into a house with thick walls. But a boatman, who laughed, took a piece no larger than a small dog, and threw it to me. I – all my people – swallow without reflection, and that piece I swallowed as is our custom. Immediately I was afflicted with an excessive cold which, beginning in my crop, ran down to the extreme end of my toes, and deprived me even of speech, while the boatmen laughed at me. Never have I felt such cold. I danced in my grief and amazement till I could recover my breath and then I danced and cried out against the falseness of this world; and the boatmen derided me till they fell down. The chief wonder of the matter, setting aside that marvellous coldness, was that there was nothing at all in my crop when I had finished my lamentings!"

Sep 13, 2010 - The first shipment of ice imported to India soon fires up a market for cold drinks ... Photo: Essex Institute Historical Collections ... An article titled "The Ice Trade Between America and India," published ... As trade took off, ice was stored in ice houses built in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. ... 
A hand-coloured print of Ice House, Calcutta, from the Fiebig Collection: ... Print image ... Ice Houses were built in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras by Fredric Tudor, ... who first brought ice to India in 1833 on a ship called 'The Clipper Tuscany'. ... the ice houses were no longer needed to store the ice imported from America.

The Ice House Calcutta by Frederick Fiebig 1851

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repositoryFile:The Ice House Calcutta by Frederick Fiebig 1851.jpgSize

611 × 640 

South Beach from old Ice House [Madras=chennai]

South Beach from old Ice House [Madras]
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Ice house, Madras

Ice house, Madras

The Ice House. A pink, part-circular, wedding cake-like building on the Chennai sea front. It hasn't stored ice for well over a century. But that's how this extraordinary building is still generally known.

It was built in 1842 - one of three ice houses in India established by the Boston-based 'ice king' Frederic Tudor, and the only one of the three to survive. And yes, it really did store ice, transported all the way from New England.

Tudor hit on the idea of harvesting ice from the freshwater lakes of New England (it was after all free), using sawdust for insulation, and then sending the ice out from Boston where ships often travelled empty to the Caribbean and further afield. Yes, a lot of the ice melted - but enough made the journey, and was sufficiently prized, to earn a profit. A decent profit to judge by the splendour of this building. 
The poet and essayist Henry David Thoreau saw ice being harvested for Tudor at Walden Pond in the winter of 1846-7. 'The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well', Thoreau wrote. 'This pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.'

By the 1880s, the long distance ice business declined as other ways of making ice came to prominence. The Ice House changed use. In 1897, Swami Vivekananda stayed in the building during a crucial period in his preaching, having just returned from the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
The building is now known as Vivekananda House and houses an exhibition about the man. ​That's cool! But then, this place is built to be cool..

The British Couldn’t Take India’s Heat, So They Imported Ice From New England

Sailing frozen lake water across the world was big business.

Sailors transporting ice to India on board the British troop ship <em>HMS Serapis</em>, 1875.
Sailors transporting ice to India on board the British troop ship HMS Serapis, 1875. Dinodia Photos/Alamy

When the British swaggered into India in the 18th century, they were paralyzed by the sun-charred summers of the country they had colonized. Many would peel away to the hills for the summer. Others, marooned in the blistering cities, indulged in plenty of mawkish whining. Plain Tales of the Raj, for instance, records one Reginald Savory grumbling, “The wind drops, the sun gets sharper, the shadows go black and you know you’re in for five months of utter physical discomfort.”
The British found various coping mechanisms to tame the season’s cauterizing heat. They slept sashed and scarved in water-drenched garments. They sloshed ice from northern India’s rivers, then drew it to the plains at tremendous expense. They hired abdars to cool water, wine, and ale with saltpetre. They hung wet tatties (mats) made of cooling khus (a type of grass) on their windows and doors. Ice pits were built and small pots of water placed outside on wintry nights. In the morning, the coating of ice that formed was sliced away and stored in the pits, but this ice was usually too gritty and slushy to be consumed.
Enter Frederic Tudor, a Bostonian entrepreneur, astute and indefatigable. Tudor dreamt of ice, cut from the ponds of native New England, and sent to hotter climes on constellations of ships. Through the years, he was staggered by bankruptcy, by vagaries of weather, and by the derision of sceptical peers who couldn’t imagine ice surviving such a long sea voyage. “No joke,” reported the Boston Gazette, on Tudor’s first voyage. “A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

A view of Mumbai, early 1900s.
A view of Mumbai, early 1900s. Dinodia Photos/Alamy

It wasn’t. Tudor solved the full puzzle of harvesting, insulating, and transporting ice long distances. By the time he turned his gaze to India, he had already infiltrated New Orleans and the Caribbean.
In 1833, he sent forth his first ship to Calcutta. It was packed with 180 tons of pristine ice culled from the lakes of Massachusetts, mantled in sawdust, belted into the ship’s hold in double-planked containers, and sent scudding towards India. Together with the ice went barrels of Baldwin apples—a more reliable export.
Four months later, when Tuscany sailed grandly into Calcutta on September 6, 1833, a thrum of residents beetled their way to the docks to ogle with wonderment at this strange, foreign marvel. It is said that one Calcutta dweller enquired whether ice flowered on trees in America. Another laid his palm on the ice for several minutes, then, jarred by the inevitable blisters on his palm, screamed that he had been scorched as by fire. Yet another urbanite, J H Stocqueler, editor of The Englishman, was in bed when he was woken by the cries of his orderly, vivid with excitement at the news. Tottering back with a piece of this precious cargo, the orderly, alas, neglected to swathe “the ice in cloth nor close the basket lest the ice became too warm.” Consequently, he returned with a nail-thin chink of ice. Some Indians, alarmed at the ice’s brisk disappearance, demanded their money back.

Cutting ice from Rockland Lake, New York, c. 1846.
Cutting ice from Rockland Lake, New York, c. 1846. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-pga-06287

Nevertheless, the ice trade became an astounding triumph, spreading to Madras and Bombay. Along with the ice, Tudor ignited a frenzy for American imports including New England apples and American butter. His business grew fat on a government-supported monopoly and concessions to import tax-free ice. Enormous icehouses began to pock the streets of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras.
Tudor’s ice trade, swollen with success, began to be noticed by Americans—most famously, Henry David Thoreau wrote fleetingly about it in Walden: “Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.” Tudor became the millionaire Ice King, snagging himself a 19-year-old bride when he was 50 and fathering six children.
At the vanguard of this trade were private clubs in India, set up by the colonizers as offerings of an Elysian British experience, complete with uniformed wait staff serving roast beef and boiled mutton to the administrative elite. The clubs invested heavily in the construction of ice houses; consequently, their dining tables teemed with cold drinks and well-preserved meat. In Bombay, for instance, the Byculla Club ordered 40 tons to be delivered by May 1840, the beginning of summer.

The dining room inside the Byculla Club.
The dining room inside the Byculla Club. Public Domain

Ice also functioned as a palliative for an antiphony of illnesses, from fever and stomach disorders to kidney defects. During ice “famines” (when ships were delayed), it could only be purchased in limited quantities, and anyone wanting a sliver more needed a doctor’s note. Easy availability of ice became so entrenched that one famine in 1850 produced gales of outrage in Bombay, with the Telegraph and Courier even calling for an agitation.
But while ice from New England was a boon for British colonizers, for Indians, it proved mainly another burden.
It was a delirium of differences. Most Indians, far too poor to purchase such frivolities as American frozen water, and already burdened by heavy taxes, were further throttled by taxation used for building (and later expanding) the icehouses. There were also more humble casualties—the ice trade whittled away at the jobs of the abdars, rendering their positions obsolete. Some Indians availed of ice in major hospitals; many more barely laid their hands on it.
Still, there were exceptions. The first cargo of ice, for instance, was consigned to a Parsi firm, Messrs Jehangir Nusserwanji Wadia. (The Parsis are a tiny community of Indian Zoroastrians, with roots in Iran.) The firm then disseminated the ice to a clamor of Britishers.

Vivekananda House, built for ice storage, in Chennai, India.
Vivekananda House, built for ice storage, in Chennai, India. ajith achuthan/Alamy

Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, a wealthy Parsi merchant and philanthropist, and the first Indian baronet, was another such. Jeejeebhoy was the first to offer ice cream at a large public reception. Guests gorged on them. A few days later, the Bombay Samachar newspaper wrote priggishly that the hosts and the guests had since been besieged with colds, but having had the temerity to try this “foreign” food, a cold was a fitting penalty.
By 1860, though, ice was no longer considered a treat. “Like most of the conveniences which habit renders familiar, the ice has almost ceased to be a luxury,” wrote the British artist Colesworthy Grant, from Calcutta, in a letter to his mother, “and though little children still continue to seek and to suck it as though it were a sweetmeat, they no longer consider it as the novelty which, when first holding it in their nearly paralyzed fingers, they declared, in amazement, had burnt them!”
Tudor’s vice-grip on the ice trade continued until the 1860s, until, enfeebled by old age, his hold wore thin. Massachusetts lakes, smothered with pollution from new steam railways, lost their allure. Simultaneously, artificial ice-manufacturing units (the first being the Bengal Ice Company) entered the trade, while a skein of new railway lines made it easier to transport the goods around India.
Today, the idea of an ice trade seems almost chimerical. Freezers in Indian homes hold creamy discs of kulfi, while refrigerator shelves are heaped with Thums Up, Sosyo, and other carbonated delights. But a lone ice house still stands near Chennai’s Presidency College. Once containing blocks of ice, it later housed, at various times, a High Court judge, a clutch of poor students, and the Indian sage Swami Vivekananda. Today, most traces of Tudor have been wiped away. Rather poignantly, it is now named Vivekananda House, a paean to the monk and mystic who spread awareness of Hindu Vedanta philosophy around the world and across the seas to the United States.