Friends of Middleton Park
Until 2013 the Middleton ice house seems to have been erased from collective memory. No recent history of Middleton mentions it, and the 25-inch Ordance Survey map of 1922 shows it as an "old shaft". Its rediscovery is an interesting story of oral history, an expert, some diligent searching and some archaeological excavations.
During the Community Archaeology Project, 2006-2008, many people offered their recollections of the park. Among them was Robin Silverwood, who worked in the park for Leeds Council most of his working life. Robin is a fund of stories of his time working in the park, and towards the end of the project mentioned that a hill slope towards the west of the park, near the tram track, was at one time known as Ice Hill.
The Archaeologist, Martin Roe, who was leading the project, said that could be because it lead to Middleton Lodge's ice house. The Lodge had been built in the 1760's and large country houses of the time nearly always had an ice house to store ice collected in winter for use over the summer months. The slope was indeed north facing, and an ice house at the foot of the slope would have been in shade for much of the summer. But no mention of an ice house had been found in the various documents and histories gathered by the project. No building, or remains of a building, was known in the area, so Robin's comment was just filed as "interesting".
However one person found this more than interesting. Paul Hebden, of the Friends of Middleton Park, spent time over the following years looking around the area for any signs of a building. Eventually, in late 2012 - early 2013, after clearing away much leaf mould, he found the edge of a row of old bricks. (Fig1)
Paul asked members of South Leeds Archaeology (SLA) if they would come and have a look, which they did in early 2013. The brick edge was certainly curved, could it be part of a brick lined ice well? To be certain there would have to be an archaeological excavation to clear away the leaf litter and soil and see exactly what was there.
[ Click on images to view a larger version ]
In May 2013, having got permission from Leeds Council, SLA members spent a weekend excavating the site. The picture, Fig2, shows Paul Boothroyd the chair of SLA, standing in what was the well of the ice house. The thick brick lining of the ice well is clearly visible. Its construction appeared to be (but see 2019 dig below) an outer double lining wall of brick, then an earth filled gap, and an inner wall 3 bricks wide. This would have gone down to the bottom of the well, maybe 6 or more metres down. The ice well is built into the lower slope of the hill to the right of Paul.
Unfortunately, they had placed the spoil in a pile over what finally was thought to be the entrance; and time had run out. Still, they had confirmed the presence of the Middleton Lodge ice house. The bricks were 18th century bricks - similar to the ones used to build the Lodge. There was also evidence that the brick dome that would have been over the well, had an outer facing of stone.
SLA were planning on returning to complete the dig, and find the entrance. Unfortunately Paul fell ill and died the following winter, and the SLA plans were not followed up. Nothing more was done until 2017, when Leeds Young Archaeologist Club (YAC) took up the trowel and planned a dig at the ice house.
The misplaced spoil from the 2013 dig was cleared away so the youngsters could get stuck in to trying to find the entrance corridor to the ice house. No sooner had they started than the base of a wall was exposed just below the soil surface. This was cleaned up and some pits were dug in the ice well and next to the outside of the entrance wall. It was noticed that the wall of the ice well was not vertical - the well was getting broader as it got deeper. The dig only went down less than a metre, but there was no sign of the well beginning to narrow as would be expected.
Work was fairly slow, and at the end of the weekend only the one wall of the entrance was found. Refering to Fig4, it looks as if the other wall should be on the left of the exposed wall, but that is well into the slope of the hill. Indeed the possible shape of the entrance was not at all clear. So there was still lots to discover.
Getting practical projects for the YAC members to get involved with is quite difficult, and getting this on the doorstep was a wonderful opportunity. The young people from the club had a great time, guided and assisted by the adult YAC leaders and some volunteers from SLA and FoMP. Some members from Pontefract and York YACs also came along to help.
It was two years later in 2019 that Leeds YAC returned to do a second dig to try and find the full structure of the entrance, and see if they could dig deep enough to find when the ice well started narrowing.
This time several of the youngsters proved themselves capable, responsible and safe, so were given the opportunity to use the larger tools. All the YAC members got stuck in (Fig5). As a result a lot more was achieved.
At the end of the first day, Fig6, the end wall of the entrance had been unearthed and a pit in the well had been started. Also when cleaning up the earth and leaf litter from the well's brickwork, it was discovered that the supposed earth gap in the well lining wall was only one brick deep - underneath was mortar and brick. The lining of the ice well was 6 bricks wide. It may have been that there was an air gap in the structure that would have covered the well to keep the heat out, but that is guess work.
The second day of the dig saw more activity at the entrance and the base of the third entrance wall was found, built into the slope of the hill.
In fact, we believe all the outline of the ice house was uncovered. Between the entrance corridor and the ice well, a hole for a door post can be seen in Fig8 towards the right but there is no visible post hole towards the left. Instead there is a gap between the layers of the circular wall. Is it too fanciful to think that there might have been a sliding door?
There was no sign of where the exterior door to the entrance corridor was. It could be that the walls were demolished below the door's threshhold.
The ice house would have looked like an igloo, in brick and stone. There is an ice house (Fig9) still standing at Cannon Hall. Cannon Hall was built at roughly the same time as Middleton Lodge, so their ice house is contemporary with ours. The photo shows the bricked up entrance and there are plans for a restoration. It will be interesting to see what the interior is like once there is access, and to see if it possibly adds to the understanding of our ice house.
The test pit in the ice well only got down a little deeper than that in 2017, but the well was still getting wider. We do not know how deep the ice well is, but it appears that ice houses usually had a sump and drain at the bottom so that melt water from the ice could drain away. Seemingly if the melt water is allowed to stay in the well around the ice, the ice melts more quickly than if it is drained away. At the other side of the tram track, the land dips away, and there is what looks like a dug ditch further down that slope. It appears that water comes out of the slope and down this ditch. Could this be the outlet of the sump and drain from the ice house? It would need a further excavation to esablish this. If so, then using surveying techniques the depth of ice house can be calculated.
It is likely that the ice house was only used from the 1760's to sometime into the 1800's. The 1800's saw the end of the cold winters of the "Mini Ice Age", a period of cooling that started in the late Medieval period. These cold winters would have provided much local winter ice from the lake to fill the ice house. As the winters warmed, the local supply of winter ice would have been hit and miss. Commercial refrigeration developed during the mid/late 1800's and would have provided an easier, guaranteed, and possibly cheaper source of ice during the summer. The ice house would have become disused and derelict. At some point the walls of the entrance room and the dome over the well will have been demolished leaving only the round outline of the well and the walls. Memories of Ice gathering and storage will have disappearing from the collective folk memory, so that when the Ordnance Survey surveyors came round in the early 20th century, they could only mark the remains "old shaft" on their 1922 map.
Since then, the remains have gradually got buried sufficiently to have disappeared from public view. People travelling on the tram to and from Leeds to Middleton would pass right by it (Fig10) and in all probability not know there was anything there. And if by chance they did come upon some bricks showing through the soil, would they have guessed what the structure was? I doubt it. But now it is there for people to see, and if you have come across it and come to the Friends' website to find out more, I hope you have found this interesting.
A lot of people need thanking for their input to re-discovering the ice house: Robin Silverwood for his memory of Ice Hill; Martin Roe for making the link with an ice house; Paul Hebden for the tenacity to keep searching; South Leeds Archaeology members for the first dig and for helping with the subsequent YAC digs; Friends of Middleton Park members for their help; Leeds City Council for allowing the digs to take place; Leeds YAC leaders for organising the two YAC digs; and last but not least the Leeds YAC members for their enthusiasm and energy in doing their excavations. CFA Archaeology and CITiZAN helped with equipment, CFA Archaeology produced a 3D photographic model from which plans and elevation sections have been produced with dimensions (Fig11) and relative height data. In 2019 Gavin Johnson, a local film maker, came along several times and has produced a 10 minute video of the YAC dig, for which many thanks. See below to view the video.
The book "ICEHOUSES" by Tim Buxbaum, published by Shire Publications