This article appeared in the Spring 1978 (Issue #51) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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A Ice Well at High Elms, Farnborough.
This text was originally prepared by the writer for a leaflet produced by the Bromley Consumers Group, following their scheme of preservation. The site is now open to the public twice a year when the Consumers Group gives conducted tours, notice being given beforehand in the local press. The plan was prepared by the Chelsea Speleological Society and has been redrawn for the KAR by Trevor Woodman.
Ice-houses (above ground) and Ice-wells (below ground) were reputedly introduced from the Continent in the early 17th century. It is recorded that an ice-well was erected in the Green Park in 1660 (Charles II) for the benefit of the royal household. The practice spread, many large country mansions having their own ice-houses or wells to supply ice to the household during the hot summer months.
Ice-wells vary in shape but are mostly brick-lined structures wholly or mainly underground; the top, if above the ground surface, would be covered with earth for insulating purposes. Very often the site would be screened with trees and the doorway often faced north away from the rays of the summer sun. The ice, or packed snow, would be cut and stored by the estate servants in the winter months and withdrawn as and when required for use in the mansion kitchens for various culinary etc. purposes. The more ambitious structures (High Elms is one) had a separate though smaller well or chamber (the bottom of which would contain ice), this being used for hanging and storing meat and similar perishables. The bottom and sides of the ice-well would be lined with straw, with further straw between the layers of ice or snow. This allowed the moisture from the melting ice to drain away, a necessary precaution to inhibit further melting. Many wells (as at High Elms) had soak-away sumps for this purpose; others had wooden floors about a foot or so above the raw earth bottom for the same purpose. Normally ice or snow would be lowered into the well through a shaft at the top, and would be extracted and removed through an ascending passage-way. Such a passage-way curved and with two or more doors to create an air-lock for good insulation, is a feature of the High Elms well.
It is not known when the High Elms well was constructed, but the available circumstantial evidence indicates a date of circa 1850, i.e. shortly after the High Elms mansion was built to the order of Sir John Lubbock in 1843-4. This mansion replaced an earlier building on an adjacent site which probably dated back to 1703 or earlier. The High Elms well is a fine example of the bricklayers' craft, the work still remaining in first-class condition considering its age. The main ice-well, demijohn shaped, has a total capacity of about 45 tons of ice. Sufficient, one would imagine, for at least a year's usage by the High Elms mansion — possibly longer to allow for the likelihood of a mild following winter with little or no snow or ice. It is curious that the old estate maps and the modern ones show no trace of natural streams or ponds in the near vicinity. (The present ponds by what is now High Elms Clubhouse are artificial and appear to have been constructed as recently as the end of the last century). However, 20th century water-extracting and drainage systems could be preventing what might have been a former normal winter water-logging of low-lying fields which could have provided the necessary ice. Snow could also have been 'harvested' and stored. It will be noticed that around the sides of the main ice-well, at regular (approx 30 inches) intervals from the bottom, are slight remains of staging or flooring, in the shape of timbers and iron spikes. The purpose of this is still open to conjecture but it is possible that it is connected with the storage of apples and other produce from the estate gardens, after use as an ice-well had been discontinued in the early 20th century at the time that mechanical refrigeration equipment was becoming more common.
Further work and research is planned on this interesting ice-well when it is hoped that more information will be produced.