The Ice Age In Calcutta

Anindita Mazumder

Today we think nothing before mixing ice in our drink or about storing frozen meat or vegetables but in the nineteenth century Calcuttans were unaccustomed to such chilly luxury. The British settlers felt terribly uncomfortable in the hot and humid weather of Bengal. Under such trying circumstance an innovative American businessman, Frederic Tudor thought of exporting ice to Calcutta from frozen lakes of New England and an ice house was built with land from the government and by raising public subscription. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we look back at the time when Calcuttans contributed generously for expansion of the Ice House and public got pristine ice at the rate of three annas per seer.

Before the import of ice from Boston, the Calcuttans had to do with what was colloquially known Hooghly Slush. Boiled water was poured in earthenware and placed in shallow pits filled with straw. The cool air froze the surface creating a thin film of ice. The pots were collected and stored in shallow pits for summer. It could be used to cool containers but was not fit to be added to drink. It was also quite expensive and only available for six weeks at a rate of four pence per pound while the ice from Boston could be obtained at three pence round the year.

In the year 1834 an enterprising American, Fredric Tudor sent some 40 tons of ice to Calcutta. There was great sensation as Calcuttans had never seen a block of pure ice weighing two maunds, writes HEA Cotton. A number of elite subscribers headed by Bishop Wilson presented the agent with a silver cup, thought no doubt to be an incentive for further similar excursions.

It occurred to Longueville Clark, a prominent man in the city’s social life that since the American ships came to Hooghly in ballast, carrying no cargo ice could be procured in Calcutta round the year and at half the price it sold in London provided an Ice House was set up for the use of the importer. A meeting was called at Town Hall and Clark elaborated his scheme. Within three days the government gave a grant of land on the riverside and a public subscription of 25,000 rupees was raised. Thus, the first ice house was built and ice import begun in full swing but in the words of Clarke “the accommodation was too small.” So another public meeting was called, the government under Lord Auckland granted another piece of land and subscription of 25,000 rupees was raised once again. There is an interesting anecdote on how the additional sum was raised. Twenty-two medical practitioners in Calcutta had sent separate certificates to the government that ice was among the first remedies in the hospitals. This opportunity was seized and an appeal was made to the woman to support the importation of ice because it was for the benefit of the sick. The Eden sisters came forward and within two days the women collected about 3,000 rupees.

A newspaper, India Gazette demanded ice should be made duty free and permission should be granted for unloading the ice during night time. Ice was made duty free and the glee felt by the inhabitants can be gauged from the words of Colesworthy Grant who wrote back to his mother in 1849 in a series of letters (called Anglo-Indian Domestic Sketch by him) observing: “The services of two ships, each of 200 or 600 burthen are retained by an American speculatist for no other purpose than that of supplying the people of Calcutta, yearly, of common ice and the people of Calcutta, that is, the richer portion of them not only receive it with joy but have built a house of a peculiar construction, for its preservation.”

He went on describe the ecstasy felt on being supplied with ice which could reduce drinking water or wine or beer from tepid to a degree near zero. “I will not talk of nectar or elysium but I will say that if there be a luxury here, it is this – it is this!”

Cotton describes the Ice House as located at Hare Street to the west of Small Cause Court building and it was a “strangely shaped globular building which stood perched on the summit of a flight of steps.”It was razed to ground in 1882, after production of artificial ice began in the city with Bengal Ice Company in 1878 which eventually killed the Indo-Boston ice trade.

The Ice Houses in Calcutta and Bombay did not withstand the vagaries of time but the shell of the Ice House in Madras survives till date, renamed as Vivekananda House since Swamiji had stayed there and delivered lectures after his return from the West.