Prior Park's ice house

Ice houses were great status symbols before fridges were invented © Jim Parry

Ice houses were great status symbols before fridges were invented

Keeping things cool

A path at the end of the middle dam leads to Prior Park's ice house.

The ice house at Prior Park was probably built around the same time as the mansion, in the mid-18th century. It's made of Bath stone, a building material championed by Ralph Allen.

During severe winters, blocks of ice and snow from the lake at the bottom of the valley were stored in the ice house, using layers of straw as insulation.

The ice house's place at the far end of the garden was unusual - at most other properties, they were built close to the mansion for convenience.

However, this wasn't necessary at Prior Park thanks to the railway on Ralph Allen Drive, which brought ice up to the mansion in the summer.

In the summer, the ice was mainly used to preserve food, in the same way a fridge is today.

History of the ice house

Ice houses were introduced in Britain in around 1660 as a means of providing ice all year round.

In general, only large manor houses had ice houses. They were considered a sign of great wealth and status.

In 1755, Henry Hoare of Stourhead wrote that ice houses were, '…the envy of the indolent who have no claim to temples, grottos, bridges, rocks, exotic pines and ice in summer'.

The role of the ice house in the Second World War

During the Second World War, the ice house at Prior Park took on a new role. German invasion was a constant threat. The ice house was stocked with ammunition and other supplies for resistance fighters to use, should such an event occur.

Mr W G Dennis recently wrote to us about these extraordinary measures:

'Patrols of seven men, very well armed and trained, and supplied with substantial quantities of explosives and other devices, would have gone underground if the German army had landed over here. Our job would have been to harness and sabotage their supply lines.'

Schoolboy discovery

When Mr Ron Frost was a schoolboy, he was playing in the grounds one afternoon during the Second World War, and came across the ice house. At that time, it was the base of the Admiralty No.4 Patrol of the secret Auxiliary Units.

'Down the ladder we went, and there, leading off from the base of the ladder, was an excavated room about 8 feet by 5 feet, we looked around in great surprise. There were chairs around a table, and along one wall were about four bunk beds. The biggest shock we had though was discovering guns and ammunition in boxes against the opposite wall.'