Ice Houses

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about ice houses. English Heritage had just restored the ice house at Marble Hill, which is very close to where I live. They claimed that the ice house at Marble Hill was particularly important as ice houses are rare. This made me think about ice houses locally and I wrote about four of them, which suggested to me that they weren’t really rare at all. Then last week, I spent a day at Kew Gardens, so now I’ve updated my old post to add a fifth.

In the days before refrigeration, the only way of providing ice was to store natural ice in an ice house. Ice houses were basically insulated pits. Ice was put into the pit (which had an outlet at the bottom for meltwater to drain through) and covered with straw to provide some insulation. A pit full of ice would last well into summer.

Ice houses were only used by the very rich, so to that extent they were rare. But many grand houses in the country had an ice house.

Marble Hill

Marble Hill House was built in the early 18th century for Lady Henrietta Howard.

One good source of ice would be the Thames, back when it froze, so Marble Hill, set on the banks of the river may well have got its ice from there. Marble Hill’s ice house is conveniently near the house, but nestles in the shade of the trees. It’s a solid brick structure with a door for the ice to be taken in or out. Most of the brickwork, though, is hidden under a mound of soil that insulates the building.

English Heritage have planted ferns and small shrubs over the building. It may well have looked like this when it was built. It wasn’t just functional: it was a status symbol and Lady Henrietta Howard (who had it built) would have wanted it to look attractive. It’s possible that there was some sort of statue at the rear of the building to enhance its appearance from the back.

The ice house was lost for years when that area of the park was allowed to become overgrown. English Heritage have every reason to be proud of their efforts, but it’s hardly “rare”.

Ham House

Marble Hill House is built almost directly opposite the Jacobean Ham House on the other side of the Thames. Ham House has its own ice house built as part of the service area that supplied the kitchens. It’s near the dairy and buttery which sit between the house and the kitchen gardens.

The design is very different from that at Marble Hill, but it works in exactly the same way. At Ham House you can see into the empty pit to get an idea of the scale of the operation.

Hampton Court

Further up the river, we come to Hampton Court Palace. The splendid ice house there is near an artificial lake but some distance from the palace itself. Maybe they galloped the ice to the kitchens on horseback.


I was beginning to think English Heritage was rather exaggerating the rarity of ice houses in the area when our explorations during lockdown took us to a small public park in Isleworth about two miles from Marble Hill. Here there was once a grand house called Silver Hall. It was demolished in the 1950s, but one part of the structure remains. Can you guess what it is yet?

Yes, it’s lost its earth covering that would have provided insulation, but it’s definitely an ice house.


So to my latest local ice house discovery. It’s in Kew Gardens and was built for the royal palace at Kew — little known, but well worth a visit.

It’s a short walk from the house in well shaded area. (Kew Gardens isn’t short of trees.) It’s notable for having quite a long entrance tunnel, keeping the actual ice pit well away from the outside warmth.

It was a very hot day when I visited and the tunnel was blissfully cool.

The domed chamber at the end is large and suitably impressive for a royal ice house. The ice itself, and the straw that helped insulate it, would have been in the pit below the current ground level.

And there’s more…

There are more ice houses waiting for me to find them. There’s a list on this website: Ice Wells & Ice Houses ( If my pictures of local ice houses have caught your interest, you might well enjoy the link.

A Word From Our Sponsor

These ice houses were all built before we first met James Burke fighting in the West Indies (in Burke in the Land of Silver). As he climbed the social scale (he was definitely a social climber) he will have often enjoyed sorbets at posh dinner parties and he will have been familiar with the idea of ice houses.

If you are interested in the world of the Long 18th Century (yes. historians really call it that), you might well enjoy James Burke. Why not give him a go?

A visit to Cambridge

There was no blog post last week as I was away in Cambridge so I’m sticking with the idea of short posts with pictures and a bit more about daily life. It means that I get fewer views on my blog but people who do read it seem to like it.

Most of the colleges are closed to the public at this time of year, although we did visit Kings and the chapel there is every bit as amazing as people say.

Although the fan vaulting is what makes the building unique, the amazing 16th century stained glass (which somehow survived Cromwell’s Commissioners) is also special. Those tall windows with their elaborate pictures reminded me of the Sainte Chapelle chapel which I saw on my recent trip following Burke’s adventures in Paris. In fact, King’s College chapel was very influenced by the French royal chapel.

Christ tempted by Satan in one of the windows.

With the colleges closed, we spent a lot of our time in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Founded in 1816, the collection has a lot of Georgian and early 19th century material which is particularly interesting to me, partly because of the stories I’ve written set in this period and partly because of the amount of time I’m spending in Marble Hill House these days. Near the entrance of the Fitzwilliam is this statue of George II who paid for much of Marble Hill.

George II wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and I think the statue catches that.

There’s a lot of 18th-century embroidered upholstery in the museum which, again, caught my eye because of the embroidery in Marble Hill House. You can see an example of embroidered upholstery in the photo below.

I’m interested in who did this embroidering. It seems that they were made by Georgian women with too much time on their hands. They couldn’t be seen doing anything as vulgar as a job, so they really did have a lot of time to fill. You could buy pre-drawn embroidery patterns to stitch, just as you can now, or you could draw your own.

Modern Embroidery Kit

There’s a lot of embroidered upholstery in the Fitzwilliam, which had me wondering if some, at least, were stitched by women for whom it wasn’t a hobby, but a job. I looked for any indication of the people who have produced this work but, presumably because they were mere women, none of them seem to have been credited with their creations.

Henrietta Howard, whose home Marble Hill was, was a great collector of chinoiserie, wildly fashionable in the 18th century. There’s a lot of it in the Fitzwilliam.

Perhaps Lady Suffolk’s enthusiasm for fine china was a reaction against the English earthenware that she must have grown up with. There’s a lot of that in the Fitzwilliam too.

One final exhibit very tenuously linked to Henrietta and then I’ll shut up.

This sculpture is supposed to represent a woman epitomising Reason. (It’s next to a much racier lady representing Love.) Notice the hand touching the face. It’s supposed to imply scholarly or poetic thoughts.

Art historians would have you believe this trope was established in the 17th century, well before this painting of Henrietta Howard was commissioned by Alexander Pope.

My wife, who is not an art historian but likes to check these ‘well-known facts’, looked at over 2,000 portraits in the National Portrait Gallery and found that this ‘hand-to-face’ pose was very rare in the 17th century. It seems to have taken off with Pope who not only commissioned this portrait of Henrietta but had multiple portraits made of himself, many of them in this ‘scholarly’ pose. By 1832, when the sculpture was made, this was a recognised bit of symbolism but it seems likely that Henrietta was the first woman to be shown like this.

So all the way to Cambridge, just to be reminded of our local stately home. It was a fun and interesting trip anyway. I hope you like the pictures.

Writing (and other) Life

I’m still playing with the idea of shorter blog posts which don’t involve researching anything so that I can share historical stuff with you. So this week, here’s a bit about how I’ve been using some of the time I haven’t been writing my blog.

I’ve spent an afternoon volunteering at Marble Hill House, which is a lovely Georgian villa near where I live. I’ve written about it HERE. It’s open Wednesdays to Sundays and free to visit, so why not call in?

On Sunday I went to a tango concert by El Chamuyo Tango Quartet and did a bit of dancing.

There’s been some other dancing, inevitably, and dance class, which seems to leave us exhausted. Old age, I guess.

Our son is working in London, so he’s been back living at home after around 15 years. Contrary to what people say about millenials, he’s working incredibly hard so he’s off out before we wake up. In the evening, he has many cooler people to spend time with than his parents, so we hardly see him. We have been doing a fair bit of dog-sitting though.

I’ve also been progressing, painfully slowly, with a rough draft of the next Burke novel, set in the War of 1812.

That’s life here. I hope you are having fun with whatever you are doing.

A scandal at court

Regular readers will know that I spend a lot of time at Marble Hill House where Henrietta Howard lived from 1734 until her death in 1767. Marble Hill became the centre of a circle of some of the leading writers of the day, including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, who wrote the Beggars’ Opera.

John Gay’s portrait hangs in Marble Hill alongside a painting of King George II and one of the Duchess of Queensbury.

A tale of political mischief-making links the three paintings and a musical that I went to see last week.

Following the success of The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, John Gay wrote a sequel, Polly. However, Walpole, the prime minister, was scandalised by the satirical attacks on him in The Beggar’s Opera and persuaded the Lord Chamberlain to ban Polly as a filthy and libellous work. Gay responded by having the play published by subscription in 1729, an exercise that proved very popular.

Of course, subscribing to the play was a way of expressing disapproval of the Prime Minister.

The Duchess of Queensbury (a close friend of Henrietta Howard) was a member of the Court and no fan of Walpole. She also had a wicked sense of humour. She approached the king (who had appointed Walpole) and asked him to subscribe. George (who was not terribly bright) did so.

When Queen Caroline (the brains of the outfit) found out, she was furious. The Duchess was exiled from the court. She doesn’t seem to have cared. She moved into a house just across the river from Marble Hill and she and Henrietta Howard remained great friends.

There’s a video version of this post on TikTok:

A Word From Our Sponsor

All this took place about 60 years before we first meet James Burke fighting in the West Indies (in Burke in the Land of Silver). In many ways, the world of Henrietta Howard was very different from the world of James Burke but anyone with an interest in the Long 18th Century (yes. historians really call it that) might well enjoy James Burke. Why not give him a go?

Malmaison: a home fit for an Empress

In Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, Burke visits the Empress Josephine at her home at Malmaison. Until I started researching the story, I had no idea that Malmaison still existed and is a short bus ride from the centre of Paris. Back then, I couldn’t go to see it because of covid. Fortunately, there is an excellent virtual tour available online but I really wanted to see the place for myself and last month I was finally able to visit.

It’s a beautiful house, lovingly restored to show what it was like when Josephine lived there.

This was her bedroom and the bed where she died in May 1814. It’s rather splendid.

She actually had another, more liveable, bedroom for regular use but this one (designed in 1812 and restored by Napoleon III) was her “formal” bedroom. I wish I had seen it before I wrote the book because I’ve created an imaginary bedroom on the ground floor and this one would have been much more fun.

Visiting Malmaison gives you a strong idea of what Josephine was like. I enjoyed the billiards room.

Billiards rooms always seem a very masculine place (often explicitly so in English stately homes) but the billiards room at Malmaison was just across the hall from the dining room and apparently Josphine enjoyed a game of billiards after dinner.

Although Malmaison was her personal property, Napoleon spent a lot of time there and clearly had a hand in a lot of the décor. There is a recurring tent motif, with walls covered in fabric. The Emperor wanted to feel that he was out campaigning even when he was quietly at home with his wife. This was particularly obvious in the council chamber where he would often meet with his ministers.

Napoleon was a voracious reader — he even had a travelling library in the coach he took on campaign — and leading off the council chamber was a large library with a hidden staircase that led directly to his first floor apartment.

There are an awful lot paintings of Josephine on display in Malmaison. I notice her feet peeking out from under some of her dresses. I think she might have been especially proud of her feet which, judging from some shoes on display, were particularly small and narrow.

She was fond of shoes, buying an immense number. She spent out on dresses, too, though probably not very many like this one.

Josephine is buried with her children in a church nearby.

It’s such a shame that Ridley Scott’s terrible film of Napoleon’s life did not make more of Josephine. At one point, Napoleon appointed her Regent of France and she seems to have been a remarkable woman. It was a great pleasure to visit her home.

Buy the book!

Burke and the Pimpernel Affair is huge fun, featuring thrilling gaolbreaks, fun with the Empress Josephine and a surprising amount of historical fact hidden away in Burke’s most outrageous adventure. Buy it for just £3.99 on Kindle or £9.50 in paperback.

If you want to explore more of the places Burke visited in the book, have a look at last week’s blog post: In Paris with James Burke.

A Very Short Blog Post

It’s late in the day to be posting my Friday offering, but I’ve got an excuse. This was earlier today.

It’s been an exciting few days, following in Burke’s footsteps from Burke and the Pimpernel Affair. There’ll be a long post about it next week, but right now I’m tired and off to bed. Enjoy your weekend!