Before the early years of the 19th century ice was gathered from ponds, rivers, and indeed from the canals and was stored in underground ice stores. Ice began to be imported from Norway in the 1820's and it was necessary to dig large ice wells in London in order to store it to meet the growing demand. Luxury items like ice cream had to be made fresh and eaten straight away, there was no mechanical refrigeration until around the turn of the century. Carlo Gatti (1817-78) was a Swiss Italian who came to England in the 1840s. He started a cafe at Charing Cross which was then an innovation. It was a great success and he soon expanded his business to include cafes and restaurants. The Swiss were amongst the first to offer the British public comfortable, safe and welcoming restaurants at moderate prices with some continental cuisine.
Ice was sold to restaurants and to fishmongers and others to keep food chilled. The mass import of ice reduced its price to a level where the manufacture of ice cream and its sale to the general public became an economic possibility. The ice wells at 12/13 New Wharf Road (Now the museum) were in use until at least 1902. After then, the first floor of the building was constructed as stables for the horses which were needed to pull the ice delivery carts. A floor was built over the top of the ice wells which were later used for rubbish dumping. The last import of any ice from Scandinavia was in 1921 by which time mechanical ice production was well established.
The ice trade continued long after the import of natural ice had ceased. Ice delivery was essential for many businesses until commercial electric refrigeration became widespread in the 1950s and 1960s. In an essay "The ice game" by Terry Hearings we read his recollections of ice delivery in London in the years just before and just after the Second world War. The essay paints a vivid picture, with humour, and reminds us of the sorts of business that were customers for ice. It probably reflects life in the trade from much earlier times, and paints a picture of a now-vanished aspect of London. Read The Ice Game.