The Ice House

Concluding our examination of the placename Halfway House today, we showcase another wonderful building on the site, the commercial Ice House- the fridge freezer of the 19th Century.  It utilised frozen water as a cooler area and a preservative for foodstuff – and my own theory is that the building was part of an operation in the proliferation of scotch weirs in nearby King’s Channel.

The building

The commercial Ice House is a circular build, approximately 20 ft in diameter on the inside and over 30 feet high.  I asked my good pal Andrew Lloyd aka fellow blogger (Bob the scientist) for a back of an envelop calculation on the capacity based on my measurements.  Volume =  πr2h =π×32×10 =90π = 280 cu.m.  280 tonnes of water or 260 tonnes of ice.  That’s a lot of ice. ( I may have overestimated the size, but even half of that is a lot of ice!)

In design terms, the wall to the South, which would have taken the most sun was six feet wide in the past and was of cavity construction.  Most designs have a preference for thatched roof and the entrance to the tower was a door near the roof and accessed from the present garden of the Kenny family home on the Passage Road.  This entranceway is north facing and would have had some protecting cover too, and possibly a number of feet back from the door to keep the air out.  I’m only speculating on this point having read of the design of other buildings.  I examined the area there some years back with Mrs Kenny and I could find nothing of a permanent nature like stone or brick, so if there was protection, it must have been timber.    (Mrs Kenny told me that she didn’t know much of the operation, except that the ice came by boat via the Pill)

Ice pits are often referred to in describing such facilities, but I think this may refer to such houses buried into the ground.  The Halfway house example is built into the hill which gives a certain amount of insulation.  The crucial part of such buildings was drainage, any melted ice had to be free to drain away, as ice sitting in water melted faster.  The better compacted the ice was the slower it melted (think of a snowman and how slowly it melts away, even after the snow has gone from the ground)  I’ve read that ice properly stored in such chambers could last years.

Apologies in advance for this amateur footage, but I took this in one take in an effort to give a sense of the building (Thursday 19th August 2021)
Dating the tower

No one seems to know the date it was built. I find it interesting that when travel writer and social commentator Arthur Young visited in 1796 and again in 1798 that he failed to mention it, suggesting it is a later build. This is also suggested by the Richard and Scales map, but the building does show up on the later historic maps.  I can find no written mention of the building or newspaper reference, so as unsatisfactory as it is we can only speculate that it was between the dates of Youngs visits and the historic maps series.  My own personal opinion is that is sometime between 1810-1825.  According to the information board at Jack Meades, the only known documentation associated with it was that a J Crawford was leasing the Ice House in 1853 at £2 per annum. Two John Crawfords were listed in Griffiths Valuations as running stores in the city at High St. Possibly relations or one in the same.

Purpose of the Ice House

Some have suggested it served a similar function to its smaller neighbour in Faithlegg, providing for the several big houses in the locality such as Ballycanvan, Mount Druid, Brook Lodge, the Blenheim houses, etc. I find this doubtful because of the quantity of ice that could potentially be stored.  If full it would have been many multiples the capacity of the Faithlegg House building.  My own theory has always been, that the Ice House was to assist with the Scotch Weir Fishery, in much the same way that the commercial ice houses at Lismore were used to preserve salmon from the Blackwater.

Although Ice as a means of preservation had been in practice for centuries, in the western world it had its limits.  This was because if fish was placed on a block of ice it would fuse with it and become damaged and worthless.  As a result, the ice was used to cool an area in ice houses, basements, or other areas, and indirectly kept the fish fresh.  That was until the 1780s when a hydrographer of the East India Company returned to London with a technique he had “discovered”.  Alexander Dalrymple was traveling in China when he spotted a perfectly fresh sea fish hundreds of miles from the coast.  Puzzled he asked how this could be.  He was introduced to a technique of fish preservation – chopped-up ice which could be used to cover fish, but which did not fuse with the flesh.  Harvested in winter, the ice was stored in “snow houses” and had been used throughout China for centuries.

Salmon fishing had a long history, but pressure on stocks was minimal, as it could only be consumed fresh in local areas.  This new preserving technique, coupled with the development of rail transport, led to a big demand for fresh salmon particularly in the new urban towns and cities of England’s Industrial Revolution.  It created an explosion in salmon fishing in Scotland initially which quickly spread to Ireland.  The fishing technique employed became known as the scotch weir method or stake net and it also enhanced (or corrupted) a traditional weir fishing practice allowing for much more fish to be trapped. 

an illustration of a scotch weir (there were many varieties including the adaption of the traditional Head Weir. They stretched to the shoreline, usually ran perpendicular to the shore, the fish encountered a wall of netting and swam towards the deep water where they encountered a “kill box” where they became trapped. These worked on both times of tides and there were numerous weirs in the Kings Channel and beyond

The ice required for this trade led to a growth in the building of commercial Ice Houses, not to be confused with an earlier practice of ice houses associated with the big houses.  The difference here was in terms of use and scale. The ice was used to box and ice fish. These boxes could if required be stored in the chamber and would be later sent to the port for direct export or via train to Dublin or further inland. As the use of steam driven ships arrived, fish could be on the London market in under 24 hrs of capture in Waterford, ensuring a premium price.

Where did the ice come from

Ice was originally sourced from local streams or such streams were diverted into low-lying fields or marshes where it froze on frosty nights and was harvested the following morning.  In Waterford, we have two placenames associated with this practice – Ice Fields.  I have speculated before that the local marshes with the low-lying level ground would have been ideal. 

Norweigan ice, being slid down to awaiting ship

An ice trade developed from America in the 1840s and from Norway in the 1850s.  This Block Ice was cut from natural sources in wintertime and exported directly or stored until summer when prices might be higher.   

From newspaper sources, it’s clear that the ice coming into Waterford was imported directly on what was commonly called Norwegian Ice Ships.  But it was also transhipped and there are many mentions in the later 19th Century of part cargos of ice aboard many of the steamers operating regularly to Waterford such as the SS Dunbrody and from ports which included Milford, Bristol, London, and Liverpool.

The earliest advert I could find is from the Waterford Mail – Wednesday 05 October 1853; page 1
Advert for ice from the Waterford Mail – Friday 01 August 1862; page 1. I would think it most likely that John Crawford is one in the same as the J Crawford leasing at Halfway House in 1853?
Waterford News – Friday 30 April 1869; page 2. I found adverts such as these up to 1898 in local papers

In May of 1875, Mr. Stephen’s monthly engineers report to the Harbour Board mentioned that the progress with the 2nd section of cutting (dredging) from the bridge had been impeded because of large ice ships discharging where the dredger was at work. 

Apart from my own knowledge of the icebox on the Barrow and a similar-sized Ice House in New Ross (Kelly’s Wood), the newspapers also mention one on the Manor in the city and two associated with pig production.  One at Williams St and the other in Upper Morgan St, where the Hyper Market is now located.  Both of these latter sites were of a different design and were built above the pig curing facility in the plants.  The ice was placed on iron-clad floors above these subterranean chambers and the cold penetrated the floor.  It was only required in summer but kept the meat cool as it hung for several weeks.

A description of the Queens Bacon Factory in Upper Morgan St is given here in brief  “a huge assemblage of buildings, perched on an airy height where cabbages grew until two enterprising northerners – the late Messers Richardson- covered it eleven years ago with their killing and curing houses…2000 swine bask in the disused sawdust in pens in the yard, the sawdust is used to insulate the ice in the ice house from the heat of the roof slates…700 tons of Norweigan block ice is housed in a loft over the curing floors of the factory.  They are laid out on a floor of iron and insulated by sawdust from the heat of the slates.  The ice diffuses through the floor to the cooling houses below an even temperature of about 40 degrees.  The pigs are there cooled and pickled from 10 to 20 days, according to the temperature of the season.  The final stage of the process is that the meat is packed before being exported either by the GWR Co to Milford or via the Waterford Companys Liverpool trade…” Waterford Standard – Wednesday 24 January 1877; page 3

I also found an account of one accident associated with the ice ships – “On Tuesday morning a man named Lannigan, employed board the Seagull, ice ship, unloading at the Market House Quay, fell into the hold and sustained injuries. It appears Lannigan, assisted by another man, was carrying a large block of ice, weighing over 400 pounds, when, as he was about laying it down catch a better grip, he toppled from the plank into the hold. His left temple is much cut, and one of his thighs broken.  He was immediately taken to the Workhouse Hospital, where now lies in a precarious condition.” The Munster Express – Saturday 29 April 1871; page 2

End of the ice Trade

The Ice Trade as it was known lasted up to the first world war when the dangers associated with ships crossing the North Sea brought it to a close.  Already plant ice (artificially manufactured ice) was replacing the natural cut block ice from about the 1870’s and eventually we would have fridges and freezers in our own homes.  Exactly when the ice house at Halfway House ceased operation I cannot say, but it is likely to have been in the early 20th Century.  Whenever it ended the building stands as a reminder of a very interesting and unique period of trade in our maritime history.

Interesting to note, that for some Ice Harvesting is still practiced…maybe it will make a comeback in years to come

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This year’s event is again supported by the Local Authorities Waters Programme.

4 Replies to “The Ice House”

  1. Yet another great post. Amazing to think of ice stored in such quantity back then yet in the 1960’s our fridge had a freezer compartment that would just about hold a packet of fish fingers, a block of ice cream and of small tray of ice blocks.

  2. Brilliant piece, thank you. Often wondered about the ice houses in Lismore now I’m enlightened. They were built into a mound in much the same way as the one at Jack Meades and also close to a weir. Btilliant

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