Sourton – remnants of a natural ice age
During the 1800s, Britain experienced a growing desire for ice for preserving food and cooling drinks. Prior to the development of mechanical refrigeration this was provided by natural ice, much of it imported from the USA and Norway. In 1875, one man attempted to harvest natural ice from Dartmoor.
Talk of Dartmoor conjures up dark and brooding images of the Hound of the Baskervilles, Bleak House and Dartmoor Prison. It is an area of great beauty but can be a forbidding and unforgiving place particularly in the winter months. It is certainly not generally considered a place of interest in the annals of the refrigeration industry but for just over a decade in the late 1800s it provided a backdrop to one man’s battle with the elements to commercialise natural ice production.
In the UK the desire to store ice grew rapidly during the 1800s with many of the larger houses boasting their own ice house. To satisfy this demand ice was mainly imported from abroad with Norway supplying most of the UK’s demand by the latter part of the 1800s. In fact, such was the abundance of Norwegian ice that, at its peak, Norway was gathering and exporting a million tons a year.
Although some ice was gathered in the UK our temperate climate could not guarantee a reliable supply. However, one man, James Henderson, a well-regarded mining expert and respected member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, sought to harness the fruits of winter by creating an ice works on the slopes of Dartmoor to gather and store a supply of natural ice.
So little of our refrigeration heritage remains but, today, well over 100 years later, visitors to an area of Dartmoor overlooking the village of Sourton can still see the remains of James Henderson’s brave but ultimately futile 12-year fight with the elements. The fact that he ultimately failed was due to that classic combination of wrong place, wrong time.
James Henderson was born in Aberdeen in 1821 into a distinguished military family. His father George Henderson had served under Wellington as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Engineers and, not to be outdone, his uncle, Admiral Robert Henderson had served under Nelson.
James started out as a railway engineer, then spent time surveying in Australia with the Royal Engineers before settling in Truro as a mining engineer and surveyor.
It was during this period that he hit upon the idea of harvesting natural ice. The place he chose was on the north western slopes of Dartmoor under Sourton Tor. His plan was to construct a terrace of shallow pits fed by a natural spring to produce natural ice with a facility for storage.
Situated on the north west edge of Dartmoor, Sourton is, today, a typical small Devon village. In addition to the ice works, the area is best known as the site for a significant civil war battle in 1643 between Cornish Royalist troops and parliamentary cavalry.
James Henderson first applied for a lease from the Duchy of Cornwall for 10 acres of land in September 1874. The proposed ice ponds, he said were to be no more than 3ft deep and would include the construction of a suitable stores or ice house “constructed of turf, earth or other suitable non-conducting material”.
He offered to pay £15 per year with a royalty to the Duchy of two pence per ton of ice sold.
His application was turned down but a second attempt the following year was accepted. A 21-year lease was granted to run from February 1875 at an annual rent of £10 per annum with royalties of two pence per ton in the years when sales exceeded the annual rent.
According to local historian, Helen Harris, who published the definitive history of the Sourton iceworks in the 1988 Transactions of the Devonshire Association, the application was granted with the caveat to fill in the ponds and level the site at the end of the lease.
It is not known how many people were employed at the site but it would have provided welcome employment for local agricultural workers during the times of year when work would have been hard to find. A local newspaper report at the time states there were five terraces of ponds with six ponds in each terrace. The aerial photo suggests there may have been 32 (as opposed to 36 as stated in the video).
There is also scant record of the machinery employed there. Hoists “of an ingenious design” are mentioned but little else. Henderson did, however, patent a machine in 1877 to manufacture blocks of ice from the compression of snow and thin sheets or fragments of ice. No direct references appear to exist to such a machine being employed at Sourton but there are many later references to Hendersons “compressed ice” so at least one must have been used at sometime, somewhere in the process.
A tramway was also laid to carry the ice off the moors.
The enterprise didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Over the first three winters, very little ice was collected due to collection problems in the first year, followed by two mild winters. Things picked up with the cold winter of 1878/79 providing a “large crop of ice”. A report in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in 1876 claimed ice of four to eight inches was being produced. The newspaper describes the process of filling the pits from the spring, breaking up the ice and storing it as “very ingenious” without going into details.
During 1879 just over 171 tons of ice was sold to fish buyers in Plymouth and 20 tons in sundry sales are recorded in Exeter. Another harsh and productive winter in 1879/80 led to sales of 300 tons of ice between February 1880 and February 1881.
It was around this time that James Henderson issued a prospectus for shares in the English Natural Ice Company, comprising his ice compressing machine and the ice works at Sourton. Also included in the prospectus was an operation at Dozmary Pool which, presumably, Henderson also had rights to. We know nothing of Henderson’s operations at Dozmary Pool but this 37 acre expanse of water is best known as the home of the mythical Lady of the Lake from Arthurian legends.
Perhaps James Henderson could have done with some of that magic because, it is likely that the increasing adoption of mechanical refrigeration technology made his company far less attractive to investors. Certainly he complained of unfair competition from what he referred to as “artificial” ice.
“I have had high hopes that the Artificial Ice Company of Plymouth would become tired of selling ice at a loss and that the selling of ice would once again become remunerative,” he complained to the Duchy of Cornwall when submitting his returns in 1882.
Henderson’s own records maintain that competition from mechanical refrigeration companies had forced the price down from £3/ton at its peak to around £1/ton.
Helen Harris in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association suggests that the firm mentioned was probably the Plymouth Ice Company of Westwell St. If correct, the Plymouth Ice Company was barely more successful, itself falling into the hands of the liquidators in 1897.
Certainly the mechanical refrigeration companies had the benefit of being close to their customer base – another ice factory was known to exist in Gulval, near Newlyn in 1876. At that time, James Henderson was transporting his ice by train to places like Exeter and Plymouth but there is one record of him transporting ice 30 miles north by train to Fremington, the nearest port. From there it was sent by boat to its destination – around 100 miles in the case of shipments to St Ives.
But by this time James Henderson wanted out. The company was put up for sale by auction in 1886 but only three people attended and there were no offers. Left with no other options, James Henderson closed the business down, disposed of the equipment and materials, filled in the ponds and restored the ground. This was confirmed on September 2 1886 by the Duchy of Cornwall’s bailiff Charles Barrington in a letter to Henderson’s agent, in which he said: “I hereby certify that all the necessary work for restoring as far as practicable the surface of the land in accordance with with the conditions of the Duchy lease to Mr Henderson has been executed to my satisfaction.
It seems strange, then, that plenty of evidence of past activities remains. Helen Harris suggests that until WWll little but a few undulations were visible. Wartime military exercises, she suggests, may have been responsible for uncovering the remains of the ice works.
Walking past the church and over the former railway bridge, it’s a moderate climb of about 1/2 mile or more to the ice works. The layout suggests that this is the route once taken by the tramway.
The first evidence of the ice works is a deep cutting to what was the former ice store. The footings and parts of the wall of the sunken building still remain. It measured around 25m x just over 6m wide but there is no indication as to its height. In his prospectus for the English Natural Ice Company, James Henderson described this store as “A very substantial stone store, lined with timber, capable of holding about 500 tons of ice,” adding “ice in this store will keep all year round, so thoroughly has it been constructed.”
Above this building to the left and right are the remains of the ponds, many still collecting water, and the spring continuing to trickle water down the hillside. The place has a bleak beauty at the height of summer but in the winter it must have been a harsh place to work.
James Henderson acknowledged the increasing demand for, and consumption of, ice but argued that its artificial manufacture was unprofitable. Mechanical refrigeration was, however, not affected by the weather and it was this that was the eventual undoing of Henderson’s enterprise.
Increasing efficiencies meant that mechanical refrigeration would eventually have won out anyway, but while the remains of the Sourton Ice Works remain a puzzle to the casual hiker they stand as a testament to a time before modern refrigeration.
But it wasn’t the end of James Henderson. Described as having a powerful physique and robust health, it is reported that he continued his mining operations, going through a long day’s work underground, well into his 70s.
In November, 1902, Mr Henderson was honoured by being made Mayor of Truro, passing away at his home just six months later on the April 13, 1903, at the age of 82. There is a memorial plaque to him in Truro Cathedral.
Subscribe to the Cooling Post newsletter