Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - The Ice Harvest

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THE north wind is raging abroad, ferocious as a savage with his teeth newly filed, seeking whom he may devour, while the land lies benumbed under the heavy hand of frost, and it seems impossible that tender green wheat and fragile flower stems should ever again force their way through the floor of rock. Still, all the dull day, all the bleak night, one crop is growing, out of which poor men make their bread, and pile fire in the grate, and comfort their little children. A crop as important in its way as many a one grown and sown under the genial influence of soft rain and summer sunshine; a harvest, the fruit of which in the season of its consumption is regarded as a blessing, as a healthful luxury, and as grateful to the palate as rich ripe wine or strawberries newly plucked. It is the ice harvest.
    It is a saying amongst the busy poor of the great city, that there "are always crumbs for the London sparrows," or, in other words, that a man in health, though never so poor, may always find a loaf by diligent seeking; and the reader who is sceptical on that point may, with a little trouble, discover an eloquent fact in support of it. Let him some frosty morning-well wrapped up, of course, and with his inner man fortified against cold by a hearty and substantial breakfast-let him rise two or three hours before his accustomed time, and while it is yet dark make his way to the North of London, and manfully trudge the [-153-] country road that leads to Highgate, Hampstead, or Enfield. If he starts from home between five and six, he will probably reach one of the places mentioned about seven o'clock; but he will not have found the way lonely.
    The roads are alive with ice-getters, who with eager eyes and their blue noses peeping over the ridge of ragged comforter in which their throats are enveloped, are hurrying to the ponds to see what sort of a crop King Frost has grown for them during the night. Yesterday they were there reaping the icy water-fields clean; and in their anxiety to make up a good load - one that might prove the last - with their drags, their hooks, and their poles, they gleaned in-shore even the small straggling lumps that floated here and there. As they lay abed the night before, these poor fellows, shivering may be under their thin coverlets, could hear the snow-flakes coming with a muffled thud against their chamber windows; and as they heard the keen wind spitefully spinning the creaking chimney cowl, they muttered, "There's comfort in that, although it's cold comfort. The ice is baking beautifully on the ponds up Hampstead way. I'll just try and have another hour's sleep, and then I'll be up and after it."
    And here they are after it - in vehicles for the greater part; in carts and "half-carts," and "shallows" and barrows, tumble-down, paintless, and poverty-stricken, that nothing in the world could match except the gaunt and rib-bare horses and ponies and donkeys that are attached in the shafts. But they are not all owners of quadrupeds, these ice-getters; very many have nothing but a barrow, on which, all the way there, Jack gives Bill a ride, on condition that Bill takes the shafts on the homeward journey with the load. It is still freezing hard, and the stars are twinkling in the cold sky, when the ponds are reached; it is not yet seven o'clock, but the troop of ice carters are not the first in the field.
    Other poor fellows, poorer than themselves, are there before [-154-] them - men who have neither horse nor barrow. They have nothing in the world but a pole with a home-made iron hook at the end of it, and a pickaxe, but in desperately willing hands those tools are sufficient to win a loaf with. They brake up the ice, the poleman and his mates; they smash it into convenient pieces, and with icicles dangling from the fringe of their ragged trousers, turned up higher than their knees, they plash and dabble in the deadly cold water to bring the ice ashore, and they help to pack it into the carts at a charge of fourpence per load. It is well worth the ice-carter's while to pay for this assistance. The sooner he is loaded the sooner he may be off to where the great well is gaping its insatiable jaws for more and still more, and where the well owner is waiting with the "bit o ready money," so precious in frosty days to the poor man with a family. It is very important to be in time with the first load. Unless a man is tolerably early at the "well," he may have to abide his turn for an hour and more; and meanwhile. maybe, the youngsters at home, having turned out of their bed, are hungrily waiting round the bit of fire by which they made the kettle boil for father, who will bring in the bread and the coffee.
    The ice trade of London and the suburbs is in the hands of half a dozen merchants; and the ice-wells or "Shades," as they are sometimes called, are few and far between. That one to which the northern ice-carters resort is situated in the Caledonian-road, just by the New Cattle Market. Its exterior on ordinary occasions is not very remarkable. It is simply a brick-built, windowless, "round house," with some sort of machinery that looks like a gigantic mouse-trap surmounting its roof. I have looked into that arctic gulf, and its aspect on a blightingly cold December day is almost enough to turn one's hair white; a terrible pit, seventy-two feet in depth-the height of a Belgravian mansion, measuring from the area to the attic-and forty-two feet in circumference. It was night when I looked down into it, and [-155-] there were flickering lamps to light the men at the various "shoots" - flickering lamps down in the chasm, where, amid the shattered spiky ice, the levellers were at work with their shovels, and in awfully imminent peril did they look, poor fellows, down there, whence came up a breath as cold as the breath of death, struggling and slipping, pounding and shovelling while all the time load after load went shooting down, crashing and clattering, and making the glassy splinters fly about their purple ears. It was quite a relief to hear one of them whistle a tune lively enough to dance to, and to observe another wipe the perspiration from his brow ere he raised to his lips a beer measure, and took a swig long and hearty. The ice well at Islington contains, when packed from floor to ceiling, three thousand tons; to make up which seven thousand loads, little and big, are requisite. As I was informed, it was one of the best seasons that had happened for years. Every man to his trade; but I confess that the cheery tone in which the good ice merchant announced this last fact gave me no great amount of satisfaction.
    I never could have supposed that ice-dealing was so moneymaking a business; and, considering the increasing summer demand for the highly useful article in question, it is a matter of no small surprise that many more adventurers do not embark in the speculation. The price at which the rough ice is bought ranges from 15d. the barrow-load to 8s. the pair-horse van load; which is, as was explained to me, an average of 2s. a load, "take them all round;" but the easiest way of reckoning will be to take the fact that the well of 3,000 ton capacity takes 7,000 loads to fill and that the average price is 2s. a load. So 3,000 tons of rough ice costs 700 carted and delivered. On the other hand, the contract price between the merchant and the fishmonger or the confectioner is 2s. per hundredweight, or 2 per ton; 3,000 tons of ice returning 6,000, or a gross profit of 5,300.
    [-156-] But the reader may exclaim, "There is the waste to be accounted for. It is all very well in the winter, but storing ice in the summer time, when the heat is at eighty in the shadiest of places, must be a ticklish operation." That certainly was my idea before I was better informed. The wasting of the stored ice is curiously small. I cannot exactly state it, but the reader with a mind for figures may easily reckon it for himself. The well, as before stated, is seventy-two feet deep and forty- two feet in circumference, and the ice is packed as closely as possible; but by-and-by it settles and becomes one dense mass, so solid that it has to be hacked to bits with axes; yet the shrinking from the wall on all sides of this dense block is only six inches. No artificial means are adopted to keep the temperature of the well low. It supplies itself with air cold enough to maintain freezing point. The ice trade begins in May; this great ice-holder is then broached, and by the end of July it is emptied. Indeed, it would be quite impossible to supply London with ice grown and garnered out of our suburban waters. We draw largely on Norway. Mr. Carlo Gatti, of the Islington well, is a mighty man of ice. At home he farms the New River and the Regent's Canal, and sends out his own carts and barges to get in the crops; and besides this he has ships on the sea constantly trading with regions which are almost perpetually icy, and which yield a pure block ice dearer than the rough by a shilling the hundredweight.
    And I wish that there were a dozen wells as broad and as deep as this one. There is a grim satisfaction in seeing poor fellows "taking a rise," as it were, out of their stern and implacable enemy; albeit it must be terribly hard and perishingly cold work, this picking the teeth of Death, of which frost and ice are symbolical, in order to win an honest loaf.