In Victorian Britain, fresh ice was a rare commodity. It was used largely for the refrigeration of meat and dairy products, as well as in place of anaesthetic for many surgical procedures. Ice also became something of a decadent luxury amongst those who could afford it; drinks served with ice cubes stood as a testament to wealth and distinction.
The two Victorian ice wells located behind King’s Cross Station in central London were constructed by the Italian-Swiss immigrant, Carlo Gatti. Arriving in London in 1847, Gatti was an entrepreneur who became famous as an ice cream manufacturer, importing his frozen ingredients from Norway by way of ship and canal boat. At the time, most ice was harvested from frozen ponds and rivers and had to stored in underground vaults to slow the thawing process.
Gatti’s ice warehouse in London consisted of two conjoined wells, each with a depth of forty-two feet and measuring a diameter of thirty feet, which between them were able to store many tons of natural ice. From here Gatti formed something of an empire, supplying ice to clients far and wide across London. By the time he died in 1878, Carlo Gatti was a millionaire.
The King’s Cross ice wells were in use until 1904. By this point however, artificial ice production was becoming more common, and Gatti’s legacy was rendered obsolete. The cellars were covered and forgotten for many years while the ice warehouse itself was converted into a horse and cart depot.
More recently, the building has been developed into the London Canal Museum. The ice wells beneath have been emptied, cleaned and lit, and can be viewed from a special observation platform. Additionally, once a year the museum invites visitors to descend into the ice wells to experience the history of the site up close.
Just in case you can’t make it to London for a visit however, the museum has also installed a web-controlled camera inside the cellar, allowing users to tour these Victorian ice wells using their web browser.