When I was a child we had few of the household appliances everyone takes for granted today.
No phone, television, microwave or washing machine and, most importantly, no fridge. Instead our food was kept cool in the pantry which had a grill open to the elements and various containers to keep things like butter and milk as cold as possible. There were no sell by dates so that gave Mum a bit of liberty when it came to avoiding today’s ‘chuck it in the bin’ mentality. There were refrigerators in existence but they were big and expensive and it was a while before they reached the homes of most ordinary folk.
Preserving food was a challenge faced by mankind for centuries and in our district we can still find evidence of the way it was done by our wealthy Victorian forefathers. Facing west across the south lawn of Callendar House is a little doorway built into the side of the grassy bank which leads into an ice house with an underground chamber where for a century or so ice brought from the loch or the canals was stored for use in the big house.
Nearly all the mansions in the district had these chambers though many have been destroyed; in 1992 Geoff Bailey compiled a list of 20 from surviving fragments and maps. One of the very earliest is at Kinneil House in Bo’ness which might date back to the late 17th century.
A few years ago when the foundations of Kerse House in Grangemouth were demolished to make way for the ASDA depot the surviving ice house was photographed before it bit the dust. It was a very substantial structure with a rusticated entrance and a large round ice chamber.
Over in Laurieston the name Icehouse Brae reminds us that there was another early one there but unfortunately we can’t identify the mansion it served.
In the winter large chunks of ice were carted to the ice house which mainly consisted of a passageway leading to an underground chamber (often egg-shaped) with a funnel hole allowing the ice which was broken into very small pieces to be dropped in. A covering of straw or sawdust would keep the ice through the following spring and summer.
In the 19th century commercial users of ice like fishermen, fishmongers and butchers purchased ice which was brought into the country in huge quantities from Norway and distributed around the country.
In the 1880s one visitor to London said “ships with Norwegian names from which a cool wind blows deliver great white ice blocks to the warehouses of the ice merchants”. Over 100,000 tons per annum was normal.
However, from the 1830s on, scientists in the UK, Australia and the USA tried to find a method of making ice, but it was more than 50 years before the first ice factories began to appear using mechanical and chemical techniques.
Falkirk’s first opened around 1900 in Dalderse Avenue where Gilbert Rae sold ice in hundredweight blocks “as hard as flint” to local shops. By 1912 he was joined by a firm called Lamb’s at Ladysmill which survived until well into the century. Their factory which was near the Mill Inn was demolished in the 1990s.
Today the abandoned underground chambers with their doors and low passages are sometimes mistaken for tunnels leading from the big house – the surviving passage at Kinneil House in Bo’ness is a case in point. However, the real story is just as interesting and carries us back to a world very different from our own.