The Ice Game

Life on the round, 1950s

Ice House

A fascinating essay by Terry Hearings

When my Uncle Sam came back from the War in 1945, my grandfather retired to the firm's office, and passed on the round to Sam. The management seem to have acquiesced, as they did in most things that the icemen decided to do.

In the summer of 1952 I was at the end of my first year at University, reading History at Queen Mary College in the Mile End Road. My money had run out, and support from home was not available. Uncle Sam came to the rescue and offered me a part-time job as his 'mate', delivering ice for one day a week.

The North Pole Ice Company had its factory under the railway arches in Brad Street at Waterloo. Ice was made by electric refrigeration, in a process which at the end of the 19th century had succeeded the import of ice in ships from Norway. The blocks slid out ten at a time from the moulds on to the loading bay. Each block was eight feet long, two and a half feet high and one foot thick, and was reckoned to weigh eight hundredweight.

The icemen's day began at 5.30am with loading-up. The noise in the little street was tremendous. The crash of ice-blocks, the roar of reversing lorries, the Cockney-Italian banter of the icemen (there were many Italian immigrants among the crew) - how did the people in the little blackened houses ever sleep late?

Sometimes, for the benefit of visitors, an iceman would slide a near half-ton block off the loading bay on to his sack-covered shoulder, and carry it with satisfaction and bending knees to a lorry tailboard ten yards away. Ice is slippery, and balance is everything.

With iron tongs three feet long called "dogs", the blocks were lined up across the open lorry, wet sacking thrown over them, and the ice-round began.

Crossing Waterloo Bridge just after 6.00am on a fine summer morning, with London bare of traffic and a slight haze softening the harder lines, is a poetic experience which may be recognised by icemen but loses impact by repetition. Left up the Strand, and the evidence of awakening humanity appeared in a lonely bus and a scattering of cleaning ladies, turbanned and bagged. No doorstep-sleepers in those days! Round Trafalgar Square, the pigeons picking at the detritus of the night, and then we slid into Leicester Square where a popular cafe was our first call.

Dot and Carrie

The "Quality Inn" had a regular order for two hundredweight, so Sam and I climbed up on the lorry, the sacking was thrown back and the first block vigorously attacked with an eighteen-inch ice pick, splitting the ice vertically. Two separate hundredweights were manoeuvred on to the tail board. We jumped down, each took a sack, wrapped it round the two sides of a block, and tipped it dextrously to lie balanced on the right shoulder against the inclined head.

The restaurant door was open, the passage clear to the back kitchen, and the great wooden icebox lay ready. The ice slid neatly into place, and Dot and Carrie were ready with the tea.

Dot and Carrie, who cleaned the restaurant, made the worst tea I have ever tasted. I suspected that it was reheated from last night's pot, but it tasted worse than that and I never dared to ask them. Dot was thin and Carrie was fat, they wore filthy pinafores, and Woodbine cigarettes drooped from their lips. Their language was not vivid but repetitive, with obscenities delivered in dry monotones. Each statement was a challenge, whatever the subject, the weather or Winston Churchill, and was accompanied by a glare whose ferocity made me quiver.

Because I was a student, I was called Professor, and expected to have an answer to any question. This was true in most places we called on, but no interrogation could quite match the torture of drinking disgusting lukewarm tea and trying to frame tactful answers to Dot and Carrie at 6.20am in Leicester Square. By a quarter to seven we were on our way to an assortment of customers whose status and requirements were diverse.

Ice Melts....

Sam wrote the ticket carefully - "Ice - 2 shillings", and slapped it on the half- hundredweight or so just deposited on the doorstep of the "Intrepid Fox". He caught my eye - for two shillings the firm supplied a whole hundredweight.

"The trouble is, it's the Weights and Measures Man" he said. "He won't make any allowance for the fact that ice melts - so if he comes along in half-an-hour and they haven't taken in the ice, he weighs it on the spot, it's not a hundredweight, and I get reported. But if I just put 'Ice' on the ticket, he doesn't know how much they've ordered, does he?"

Sam went on to explain further that there were two sorts of customer, the firm's customers who paid on monthly invoice by cheque, and the private customers who paid cash daily or weekly. "It's alright", he said. "The firm know all about it. As long as I look after their customers, they're not worried. After all, they know that we can't live on £3.00 a week......"

By Royal Appointment.....

Our lorry was not like the other lorries. They were yellow. Ours was green, and had a name painted on the side which sounded decidedly Russian to me, but which I have since discovered is a village in Cheshire : Leftwich. It also carried the Royal coat of arms : By Appointment, Purveyors of Ice to Her Majesty the Queen. Apparently, a takeover had absorbed the original firm, but there was no transferring of royal appointments, so this one lorry kept the original livery. Every day during the summer, we trundled across Westminster Bridge with a load of fresh ice for Buckingham Palace. Commercial vehicles were not allowed to spoil the view down The Mall, so we went by a circuitous route. The side entrance to the service yard of the palace was guarded by a policeman. He checked our credentials by casual greeting to Sam, who on my first visit introduced the 'Professor'.

Thereafter the delivery of a couple of tons of ice inhibited conversation for a while, not least because the great Victorian iceboxes were situated some way along the dark passages linking the kitchens and service rooms. The kitchens were large, lofty and still contained some of the equipment of our more elegant history, but it seemed there were never many people about. As usual, all were very friendly, and after the Coronation when most of the guests had departed and life was even more relaxed...........they sat me down on a wooden stool and gave me a piece of the Coronation Cake, to eat from a ceremonial plate.

The Bookie's Runner

The extent of gambling in British society is amazing to foreigners, and if you take out the middle-class segment which rarely has a flutter (except perhaps on the National Lottery), the betting done by the upper classes and the workers must be phenomenal. This was brought home to me 'on the Ice'. In pubs and clubs, in the workhouse and in the opera house, the talk was all of horses.

So - in those days before legalised betting-shops, I was not entirely surprised to find that the policeman on the gate at the service entrance to Buckingham Palace took illegal betting slips from the tradesmen who called, as well as, presumably, providing a similar service for the inmates. The Queen Mother was well-known to have an absorbing interest in racing - but I expect she placed her bets through more official channels.

The Richest Man in the West End

We clattered down the slope into the yard of the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Americans like ice, and they like it to be clear rather than opaque. This means that the water has to be frozen away from contact with air, so it can't be done in an ordinary refrigerator. The American Embassy bought at least a ton of ice every morning - twenty one-hundredweight blocks. The Embassy inevitably was a 'firm's customer'. Backwards and forwards we would trudge from the lorry to the iceboxes, but who's counting? Certainly I never did. 'Yes' said Sam on one occasion 'There goes the richest man in the West End'. It was said in tones of awe and envy. The milkman was delivering at the time.

How're you feelin'?

The kitchens of the American Embassy were bigger and fuller of equipment than those of Buckingham Palace, the Marylebone Workhouse and the Mount Royal Hotel put together. It was easy to get lost in them, and I did, and met a swarthy man who was washing saucepans. 'Hi, how're you feelin'?, he said. I stopped and considered this un-English greeting, and wondered whether something more than a polite 'Very well, thank you' was required. How was I feeling? Well, I was quite tired, very hot, my shoulder was wet through, and I could have done with a cup of tea. Before I could say this, however, Sam arrived and made introductions. Real American ice-cream was produced, and in two minutes I was 'Professor', and I knew that my friend was Spanish, had fought on the Communist side in the Civil War in the 1930s, and lived in exile because Franco's courts had sentenced him to death.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Great Portland Street had its ups and downs. 'Up' was very definitely the 'Iceman's Breakfast'. This was taken at a small cafe, with steaming coffee-urn and high-backed booths. By 10am several hours' work had aroused an appetite, to be assuaged only by a huge mixed grill of steak, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread and liberal dollops of tomato sauce, washed down with the best cup of tea of the day. Sam paid, and his mate ate gratefully.

'Down' was the next call - literally. Fortified by breakfast, we had to deliver two hundredweight of ice to a large fish-shop, and the ice was required in the cellar. The way to the cellar lay across the sawdusted shop, through a door and down a wooden staircase. Simple - but the light-switch for the cellar was at the foot of the stairs. Descent had to be in the dark. The stairs were ancient, rickety and covered in fish slime, which by its stink could have been there as long as the Regency building.

Can you imagine the apprehension at opening the cellar door, one hundredweight of ice on right shoulder, meeting a rising odour of rotten fish, and then placing one terrified foot on the unseen step down? There were sixteen such steps, no handrail, and the glissant properties of each step were only too evident. Even as my left hand crept slowly down the wall, it too encountered the glutinous mucillage of long-dead fish. The relief at finding the switch! and the horror on one occasion of stepping into ankle-deep flood of nameless sludge.

A Nightingale Sang

I think some of the houses in Berkeley Square are the most beautiful in London. The Georgian terraces, with dignified steps and elegant iron work gave me a sense of satisfaction, that here at least order and beauty hung together in harmonious efficiency.

At least, I thought they did until one soggy morning. I hefted my hundredweight (well, nearly) on to my shoulder, and strode vigorously up the steps of a newly-opened and very exclusive night club on the north side of Berkeley Square. Inside the open front door lay a pair of new swing-doors. I pushed cheerfully through in my muddy boots, and stopped: they had laid a very expensive white carpet in the hall. Sam coming in behind from the rain pushed the swing door, which made gentle contact with the ice on my shoulder. It slid forward slowly but surely in a graceful curve, fell on the marble bottom step of the stairs, and shattered into a thousand fragments across that glorious carpet.

I became aware of a presence. The Commissionaire, at least ten feet tall, was glaring down at me, the peak on his cap descending like the blade of a guillotine. By the time the first roar of rage emerged Sam had fled for shovel and sacks, I was down on my knees trying to gather together the pieces, and already little pools of water were forming as I crunched about on the carpet. Still, it was only a firm's customer.

Luxborough Lodge.

No prison gate could be half so gloomy as the gatehouse of the old Marylebone Workhouse. In these early years of the Welfare State, the Workhouse had acquired a new name from the street in which it lay: Luxborough Lodge. The essential functions of 'Union' still applied though, and nothing could disguise the original intentions of the Guardians to operate the Workhouse Test - only those in direst privation and despair would seek asylum there.

Listless figures of the old and unwanted were still to be seen walking slowly round the traditional exercise-paths or sitting staring into nothing from the iron seats. Just like Buckingham Palace, the Workhouse still had its Victorian iceboxes, but at least the Workhouse kitchens had been modernised.

A year after this there was a vigorous correspondence in 'The Times' criticising the regime under which the old people were kept in this place, and later still it was pulled down.

The Ladies of the Town

The innocence and lack of sophistication in which I lived at this time is surprising. National Service in the Royal Marines, eighteen months in an East End factory, and still I spent most of my time 'on the Ice' blithely unaware of the seedy and petty criminality going on all about us in this West End delivery round.

It was many weeks before it began to dawn on me that some of our 'private' customers for small pieces of ice were 'Ladies of the Town' - ie prostitutes. In response to my ring they would appear in dressing-gown and bleary eyes at mid-day, but they were often most generous with their tips. Shepherd Market was the most lucrative part of the round as far as I was concerned.


We would work our way through Camden Town towards a late lunch (known as 'dinner') at my grandparents' house at 89 Leverton Street, and on the way we would call in at Talby the fishmonger. Talby was a name to conjure with. Mr Talby was without doubt the most choleric man I have ever met. Standing there six foot and red faced, under his fishmonger's boater, he could pin a novice iceman to the ground with his bellowed demands and insults. Generally it was safest to go when the shop was busy. Even though there was greater risk of getting the ice knocked off your shoulder, at least he might be tied up with customers and you could slip the ice down at the back of the shop and slip out quietly. Unless you were stopped by a bellow - the ice was in the wrong place, it was too cloudy for display on the counter, it was too late, it never weighed a hundredweight, and what the devil did I mean by it? Old Talby was a legend to the icemen fifty years ago.

Up The Opera

The Opera House at Covent Garden was the last call of the day, on the run back from Kentish Town to Waterloo, and it was a firm's customer. Ice had to be taken to the bars, including the bar in the uppermost reaches of the Gallery. There was no lift and there were many stone stairs. As I climbed in the heat of the afternoon, panting and perspiring, and unappreciative of comments from the staff like "You've got a nice cool job", I wondered whether the 'Gods' were having their revenge. After all, it was in the Gallery at Covent Garden some years before, taken to the Ballet with a school group to broaden our cultural horizons, that I had used the opportunity of the first interval to steal a bowl of ice from the Bar. The second act was much improved by our passing pieces of ice along the rows with whispered 'pass it on'. Not all the denizens of 'The Gods' were school pupils, but willy-nilly they passed the ice and the shock-waves rippled along the rows with accompanying gasps and groans. The ballet continued unaffected, I think.

Sam dropped me at Covent Garden Underground, and I took the Tube home, richer by one pound, some tips, and a rich experience.

London Canal Museum would like to thank Terry for permission to publish his reminiscences