A white round building, around 16 feet high, complete with domed roof once stood on Apollo Road, now part of Shahid Bhagat Singh Road in south Mumbai. This was the Bombay Ice House, built in 1843, which stood opposite what was then the government dockyard, between the Scottish Church and Hornby House – the latter was once the governor’s house, then become a law court and then the Great Western Hotel. The Ice House was a double-shelled structure and could hold around 150 tonnes of ice.

For almost four decades, 1830 to the 1870, ice in the presidency towns of British India was a luxury item, imported from New England in the US North East. An essay by David Dickason, The 19th century Indo-American Ice Trade, which appeared in the Modern Asian Studies journal in 1991 offers much insight into the subject.

As early as 400 BC, Persian engineers had worked out a technique: ice brought down from mountains was stored in large, thick-walled containers that were placed underground and naturally cooled, according to the essay. The Mughals used Himalayan ice but the British found it an expensive proposition, maintaining ice fields that needed land and was labour intensive, Dickason tells us. There was for long the Hooghly ice, made by freezing water in shallow pits, but this came out quite gritty and slushy and was never really potable.

The ice king

In the 1830s, when Frederic Tudor built his fortunes on the ice trade, he came quite rightly to be called the “ice king”.  We learn from a website on ice harvesting that he was born into a well-regarded Bostonian family but that his fortunes thus far had been poor; even his early investments in ice trade, namely shipping it to states in southern US and the Caribbean, had been only marginal successes. It was his desperation to avoid jail as a debtor when his investments in the coffee trade came to bust that made Tudor enter the risky venture of shipping ice to British India in Calcutta. His collaborators were Samuel Austin and William Rogers, the latter agreeing to become the ice agent for the trade partners in Calcutta.

American merchants had begun trading in India in 1778 when Lord Cornwallis extended the opportunities to them, but transporting and trading in ice was a different matter altogether.  It was 1833 and voyage time across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans normally took four months. But in the last decade of the 19th century, innovations in the ice-harvesting business made such voyages a possibility.

Some of these were largely made by Nathaniel Jervis Wyeth, an associate of Tudor’s, but they would soon fall out. Wyeth invented a twin-bladed, horse-drawn ice-cutter, which meant that ice sheets could be cut up into big squares and then pried out with iron bars. This saved time and increased the productivity of men and horses. These giant cubes could also be packed tightly to quell melting. Wyeth experimented in methods of insulating the ice on board ships, developing for instance, double-walled storehouses insulated with saw dust or tan, a product of tanneries, and accessible  from the roof, to reduce the melting inevitable during a long voyage.

On May 12, 1833, the ship Tuscany, sailed from Boston for Calcutta, carrying 180 tonnes of ice. When it docked at Calcutta on September 6, the ship still had 100 tonnes of ice in its hold. People who gathered were amazed at the giant, icy cubes as they were unloaded and were described by a contemporary historian in his book, available online, on the development of the Massachusetts ice trade as “crystal blocks of Yankee coldness”. A local who reached forward to touch the ice, believed he had been “burnt”, considerably alarming the other onlookers. Another asked the captain of the ship whether ice grew on trees in America.

Thriving trade 

The export of American ice to India soon flourished. Compared with the varieties at that time, this kind of ice was seen as pristine. Massachusetts, located in the high latitudes and on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, produced substantial ice in its freshwater lakes. The purity of the ice cut from Wenham Lake, for instance, which was shipped to London, impressed contemporary scientists such as Michael Faraday, who concluded that this ice melted slowly because it did not contain salt and air bubbles.

Over the next three decades, Calcutta and other presidency towns would become Tudor's most lucrative destinations, bringing him immense profits and making him a millionaire many times over.

Henry David Thoreau, who witnessed ice harvesting in Walden Pond, around which he lived for some years, wrote in 1854 that “the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well.”

But of course, the ice from Walden served the elite Anglian society in the cities, and Tudor secured numerous favours and exemptions from the British. For instance, in the very first trip, William Rogers, the ice agent, secured a few exemptions: the ice was transported directly to warehouses without waiting for customs house formalities. Unloading the ice at night was permitted. In Bombay, ice ships received a favoured docking place and were made duty-free.

In the next few years, ice houses were built by raising funds within the community and then leased out to Tudor at a nominal rent. Tudor’s second voyage, which he financed on his own, could well have been a disaster, considering that 350 barrels of apples had all turned rotten, but the American Ice Committee in Calcutta and Governor General Lord Bentinck took a surprisingly lenient view. Tudor secured a monopoly on the trade in ice, and New England apples, as well as Spanish grapes and American butter, transported along with the ice also soon became expensive, coveted items of trade. Moreover, the ice house was expanded at public expense.

In Bombay, the firm of Jahangir Nuseervanji Wadia distributed the ice and Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy was the first to dispense ice creams at a dinner party. When several among the guests contracted a cold, the Gujarati Bombay Samachar opined that this was a worthy price to pay. In Calcutta, Dwarkanath Tagore expressed an interest to involve himself in ice shipping, but Tudor’s monopoly stayed for some decades more.

Between the years 1856 and 1882, 353,450 tonnes of ice had been shipped out all across South and East Asia and also Australia.  Some of the ice was reserved for medical hospitals in the presidency towns, and in years of low supply, ice was rationed.

Decline and fall

Modern methods of ice-making soon made their advent around the 1870s. Tudor himself died in 1864 and the business passed onto other hands. With industrialisation and the construction of railway lines, there was also more pollution around Boston, which probably affected the quality of the ice. Thoreau noted that timber was cut down from around Walden Pond for the railway lines. Ice companies were formed in India too: the Bengal Ice Company was the first, set up in 1878. Ship-building became increasingly expensive. Ice plants increased in India following the spread of the railway line: 25 in 1904, 66 in 1925.

The Calcutta Ice house was razed to the ground in 1882, the Bombay one served as a warehouse till it was demolished in 1920s. The one in Chennai alone stands today; it was remodelled with circular verandahs and multiple windows to make a residence. Despite its poor ventilation, it did work for some time as a shelter for poor students. It is believed that Vivekananda during his travels through India stayed here for some time.

Besides Thoreau’s mention of ice cutters, this trade, strangely, finds little mention in the literature of the times. An exception is Rudyard Kipling. In his story, ‘The Undertakers’ in the Second Jungle Book, he mentions it in a conversation that takes place between a bird, a crocodile and a jackal in which the bird describes his feelings after having swallowed a seven-pound lump of Wenham Lake ice:
"When I was in my third season, a young and a bold bird, I went down to the river where the big boats come in. The boats of the English are thrice as big as this village.

"From the insides of this boat they were taking out great pieces of white stuff, which, in a little while, turned to water. Much split off, and fell about on the shore, and the rest they swiftly put into a house with thick walls. But a boatman, who laughed, took a piece no larger than a small dog, and threw it to me. I – all my people – swallow without reflection, and that piece I swallowed as is our custom. Immediately I was afflicted with an excessive cold which, beginning in my crop, ran down to the extreme end of my toes, and deprived me even of speech, while the boatmen laughed at me. Never have I felt such cold. I danced in my grief and amazement till I could recover my breath and then I danced and cried out against the falseness of this world; and the boatmen derided me till they fell down. The chief wonder of the matter, setting aside that marvellous coldness, was that there was nothing at all in my crop when I had finished my lamentings!"