Massive Centuries-Old 'Ice House' Rediscovered Under Streets of London

Buildings archaeologists from MOLA record the Regent’s Crescent Ice House. (Photo: MOLA)

Once thought lost to the destructive forces of World War II, an 18th-century ice house in near perfect condition has been uncovered by archaeologists beneath the busy streets of central London.

"There was always an understanding that there was an ice house here somewhere, but we weren’t sure where," David Sorapure, the head of built heritage at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), told The Guardian. "Even after we discovered where the entrance was, we weren’t quite sure how big it was, or how you got in."

Once those obstacles were overcome, the archaeologists found themselves peering into an egg-shaped, brick-lined void more than 30 feet deep and nearly 25 feet across. While ice houses were common throughout London before the age of refrigeration, it's likely that this one was the largest of its kind. Even more remarkable, as well as a testament to 18th-century engineering, the ice house (or ice well) remains structurally sound.

A Norwegian connection

A 3-D rendering of the buried exterior of the ice house.
A 3-D rendering of the buried exterior of the ice house. (Photo: MOLA)

According to MOLA, while the newly rediscovered ice house was initially built in the 1780s, its reputation as a purveyor of quality ice for London's elite did not take hold until William Leftwich purchased it in the 1820s. At the time, ice harvested from the surrounding waterways was often unclean. Leftwich, a pioneering ice-merchant and confectioner, recognized an opportunity and made the bold decision in 1822 to charter a vessel and import some 300 tonnes of crystal-clear ice from Norway. The 1,200-mile roundtrip gamble paid off handsomely, and the ice house became a major hub for those seeking chilled resources during the warmer months.

When artificially produced ice became popular and cheaper almost a century later, the ice house fell into disuse. At some point, it became covered by rubble and lost to time. Only in the last year, with construction of a landmark residential project called Regent's Crescent, did signs of its existence become visible again.

According to MOLA officials, the ice house will be fully restored and incorporated into the gardens of Regent's Crescent. For a more in-depth view of this beautifully-engineered relic from a time gone-by, check out the video below.