3- The first use of Ice at Sea for the Preservation of Fish

Because of the problems of transferring and transporting fish in good condition whilst fleeting, Samuel experimented with the use of ice as a preservative for fish at sea. Ice had been used previously for transporting salmon from Scotland to Billingsgate. Prior to 1785, salmon had been either packed in straw, or chopped up, boiled and pickled in vinegar (“Newcastle Salmon”), but following a chance meeting between an individual of the East India Company, Alexander Dalrymple, who was familiar with the ways of the Far East, and an M.P., George Dempster, who also happened to be a Scot, ice was tried as an adaptation of the Chinese method of transporting fish in snow and ice. Dalrymple described to Dempster how the Chinese flooded their fields in winter and collected the ice in storehouses. The fields were used for growing rice in the summer. The stored ice was then used by merchants to preserve fish, especially when transporting the fish long distances inland by boat on the river systems.

Dempster was so impressed that he immediately contacted his salmon supplier in Scotland, one Robinson, who tried some experiments and found that when packed in ice the salmon deteriorated very little during the six day trip from Scotland to London. Such was the success that icehouses were built on the Tay and seven smacks of about 90 tons were employed transporting salmon to London by sea, packed in ice, returning with porter, groceries and other goods. A smack sailed every fourth day and generally made the passage within a week, but with a fair wind could make the trip in sixty hours. By 1794, herrings were being transported from Scotland to London, packed in ice.

Samuel, apparently, sent to Norway for a shipload of ice. One report gives the date of the first shipment of ice from Norway as 1815/16, and Robert M. said that it was in 1826. There is, however, no mention in the 1833 report of ice being used at sea. Samuel had come ashore in 1825 and first sold fish himself at Billingsgate in 1827, so he would have observed the fishmongers using ice on shore. It is also possible that Scrymgeour told him about the use of ice, having heard of the method while on a trip back to Fife, which trips he undertook from time to time throughout his life. Another possibility is that ice was shipped south from Scottish icehouses. He was, however, still building new well smacks in 1838.

Thus it is not clear when Samuel first used ice at sea. However, the first Hewett icehouse was built soon after the publication in “The Gardeners Chronicle” in 1845 of a letter written by Robert Fortune which described in detail the Chinese operation and their icehouses. It is almost certain that this was the time at which ice was first used in any quantity – so that the fish could be preserved while being transported by the new dry carriers using the recently developed fleeting system.

Single boat smacks could also now be away for a week or more, even as long as fourteen days, and the fish still be landed in good condition, although a slight loss of flavour was experienced.

As it turned out, the first shipment of ice from Norway was nearly a failure, because customs officials were undecided as to how to classify the goods. By the time they had decided to classify it as dry goods, most of it had melted!

The best Norwegian ice came from lakes and the surface was scored with deep grooves using a horse plough. The blocks were then cut out by men using saws with long teeth and it was possible to collect a large quantity in a short time. The blocks weighed from 2 to 4 cwt, and cost about threepence a hundredweight. The blocks were placed on wooden runways and slid down by gravity to piers where they were loaded aboard the ship.

There were several problems associated with the transport of ice from Norway, primarily the high costs incurred. Another problem, somewhat surprisingly, was the risk of fire due to the ice being packed in sawdust resulting in the production of an inflammable gas. Therefore Samuel persuaded English farmers to flood their fields in winter, as had the Chinese before, and he paid them from 3/- to 10/- (per cart, depending on size, supply and demand) for the resultant ice.

On the first high tide of the autumn, sluice gates in the sea-wall protecting Dagenham marshes were also opened, flooding large areas of marshland. The farmers then awaited the first frost. In those days winters were more severe than nowadays. In 1838, the winter was so severe that it was not possible to get any further up the Thames than Purfleet because the river was frozen, and farmers waggons had to be hired to take fish to London. Although subsequent years were not so bad as this, they were still bad by today’s standards. First supplies usually came in about the 16th November, but the bulk came in after Christmas. It is a curious coincidence that year after year the first ice would arrive on the 16th November, however mild the previous weather had been. It is said that the ice crop became the most profitable for the farmers for some years, and this income was supplemented further by ice skaters using the marshes. Long lines of carts would fill the streets of Barking queueing up to offload their ice at the icehouse.

The icehouses were built in which to store the ice so that local ice could be used throughout the year. Although more is known about ice collection at Barking, the first icehouse was in fact built at Gorleston. This was built in 1845/6 of stone by one Sadler, and cost £401. It was filled with ice from the Norfolk Broads in December 1846 by Robert Hewett. The first icehouse at Barking was built in 1847 by Curtis of Shatford and cost £1300. It is believed that this building could hold 5000 tons and that the ice would last all summer. In 1848 a second icehouse was built at Gorleston, this time of brick by Spilling, and cost £775.

In 1850 the icehouse at Barking burned out but was soon rebuilt. In 1852 the large icehouse at Gorleston was built by Robert Hewett and J. Holmes and cost £1500. In 1855 the long icehouse was built at Barking by Holmes and cost £1000, and in 1858 the large square icehouse was built there on the site of six former cottages, and cost £1124.

One report said that the main icehouse in Fisher St was 20ft underground and had walls 8ft thick, and a capacity of 12,500 tons. Icehouse walls were certainly at least two feet thick. The sheets of ice were laid down in them and soon formed a solid block. The total stored was supposed to last until the following November, but after some mild winters it was still necessary to obtain ice from Norway – at much greater cost, up to £5 per ton. It must be said that all the figures just given for capacity should be regarded with considerable suspicion because a report in The Field of September 3rd 1864 states that the icehouses could hold 7,000 tons whereas the consumption of ice was around 10,000 tons. The deficit was apparently made up by chartering vessels to collect ice from Norway.

The ice was sold to the vessels at different prices according to demand and apparently time of year. Robert was in charge at the Dagenham Gulf Ice House from which Samuel’s ice lugs Lion and Eliza were supplied in 1859. On average they would take 36 tons a time. Between 13th March and 13th May 1859 the ice house supplied 353 tons at 5/- per ton, from 16th May to 4th June 288 tons at 6/8 per ton, and between 4th June and 15th June a further 200 tons at 10/- per ton.

Artificial ice machines were being developed, but it was still cheaper to collect from the fields. The first artificial ice plant, or “ice engine”, in England was in fact installed at Barking by Samuel Hewett, and Robert Hewett also had a plant installed at Barking. Samuel traded under the name New Ice Company, and Robert traded as the British Ice Making Co Ltd in 1863. These plants were apparently soon discontinued due to the high costs involved; they used large quantities of coal and salt. In addition, the fishermen were certain that natural ice kept the fish better than artificial ice.

On the return voyage to the fleet the carrier picked up ice at Barking or Gorleston, typically taking 18 tons a trip. To save time the ice was carried down the Roding to the Thames in “ice lugs” which were stationed off Rainham, and in the later days when steamers were used the lugs would tie alongside the “coal hulk” and thus the steamers could refuel and take on ice without needing to enter harbour.

This use of ice effected a complete revolution in the industry. Up to this time smacks without wells were only able to fish in or in the vicinity of the Thames estuary. Now they could not only venture further afield but also carry larger quantities because dead fish can be packed closer together than live ones. The fleets could work further from home. Dry smacks were also more seaworthy than welled smacks of similar size and therefore more able to fish offshore in the winter. This resulted directly in the success of the fleeting system and the discovery of new fishing grounds.