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 (london-footprints.co.uk). 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?

Please follow and like us: