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Sourton Ice Factory


 Ice is probably a strange thing to list amongst the aspects of Dartmoor but thanks to a man with foresight it was, for a very short time, a thriving industry on northern Dartmoor. In wintertime the one thing Dartmoor is not short of is ice and if you go back before the days of refrigerators ice was the only way of storing some foods. Many of the large estate houses had their own separate ice houses and many of the farms had their ‘potato caves’ for cool storage but what about the ordinary people who lived in towns and cities? More importantly to the West Country’s fishing industry was the need to store their catches of mackerel and other fish for transportation, this was achieved by using large quantities of ice, some of which was being imported from Norway and other ‘cold’ countries.
In September 1874 a Mr. James Henderson approached the Duchy of Cornwall with a view to leasing Sourton hill for the purpose of collecting naturally produced ice throughout the winter months. This particular spot was ideal in so much as the nearby railway station at Bridestowe provided ideal access to both Plymouth and Exeter. To get the ice from the ‘Ponds’ to the station would have involved carting the loads some two and a half miles down from the moor and along the local roads. Plymouth at this time had a thriving fish market supplying by rail and boat the cities of London, Bath, Manchester and Bristol. In addition there was the household market in both the Plymouth and Exeter areas.

Henderson’s initial application was for a ‘sett’ of 75 acres for which he offered to pay a minimum of £15. This offer was duly declined by the Duchy on the grounds that it would damage the pasturage of the area. It seems that Henderson had already began work prior to his application and in early December the Duchy’s bailiff, Mr. Barrington sent him a reprove stating that Henderson had committed ‘trespass’. On the 28th of December, Henderson wrote another letter to Barrington saying that as the current winter was lost for ice making would the bailiff have any objections if he collected snow from any drifts in the Lydford area. The reason for this was that he knew that in Italy snow was collected and then compacted thus forming ice suitable for refrigeration. He assured Barrington that he would not use any machinery as manual labour would be sufficient. This request was granted on payment of a small acknowledgement. Oddly enough the bailiff wrote in his letter that he was sorry but because of deep snow the postal services were not collecting post and this delayed the response being sent out, Barrington also apologised for the fact that the delay meant Henderson lost an excellent chance to collect some snow.  On 21st January 1875 Henderson submitted a new proposal, this time he was asking to lease 5 or 6 acres and accompanied this request with a memorial from the local farmers stating they would have no objection to his scheme. This time the application was successful and on the 6th August 1875 an indenture was issued granting permission to “to form ponds, and collect, and store ice for a term of 21 years running from February 1875 at an annual rent of £10.”  It also stipulated that the ponds were to be no deeper than 3ft and that they must be “securely fenced for the protection of Man and Beast”. A further clause stated that on completion of the lease the ponds must be filled in and the ground levelled.


Thus the work began on building the ice factory which locally became known as the ‘Sourton Ponds’. Very little detail of the construction and methods used has come to light, possibly because Henderson appeared certain this was going to be a huge financial success and did not want anybody else copying his idea. In 1877 Henderson was granted a patent for the “improvements in the manufacture of ice and snow into blocks, slabs and other forms, and in machinery employed therein and for other purposes.”

In the winter of 1875 there was a ‘serious accident’ involving the cement lining of the ponds which meant much of what ice was collected could not be stored in blocks which resulted in less than 100 tons being sold. On the 30th of March 1876 the North Devon Journal published the following article: “A cargo of ice from Dartmoor is about to be shipped at this place in the smack Yeo, for the St. Ives fisheries, where it will be used in conserving the mackerel. It was brought by rail from the ice works situated at Sourton, between Lydford and Okehampton, just under the brow of Yestorr, at a height of 1,350 feet above the level of the sea. No machine is used in the manufacture, and it is frozen naturally by the intense coldness of the atmosphere. The works are the property of James Henderson, Esq, C. E. of Truro, and are comprised in five terraces containing six bed each. The water by which they are supplied flows from the granite at an elevation slightly above the uppermost terrace, and the greatest thickness of ice this season has been nearly one foot, but it is explained that it would have been much greater but for the occurrence of an accident, which will be avoided in the future. The ice is being shipped off to various fisheries, and Mr. Henderson has a store at Plymouth from which it will be always obtainable. The trade is yet quite in its infancy, and to give an idea of what it yet may become, we may mention that from the Mount’s Bay mackerel fishery alone 2,300 tons of fish are dispatched  to the metropolis annually. Mr. G. B. Pearse, harbour master of Barnstaple, has been appointed shipping agent.” In the August of 1876 a gentleman was staying at the White Hart in Okehampton and reported that they had none due to the heavy demand on Sourton Ice which had run out of supplies for the season. Dispite Henderson’s ice being shipped all around the South West the folk of nearby Tavistock made the following “icy blast in 1886 – “Some Tavistockians want to know why, if “real Dartmoor ice” could be put on a table when the Bishop of Exeter dined with the clergy at Okehampton, ice in not a little more plentiful in their own pleasant town, which like Okehampton is on the borders of Dartmoor, and not very distant from the Sourton Ice Works. Ice at present is imported into Tavistock by fish cart at the rate of £1 a cwt., but this is considered too much, and what is asked for is a Sourton ice depot. I have quite sufficient confidence in the business capacity of the Sourton Company to feel confident that if such a depot will pay it will speedily be established.” – The Western Morning News, July 31st, 1876..

The following two winters, 1876 – 1877 and 1877 – 1878 saw very mild weather which meant the ice could not be stored. In the March of 1877 the following report appeared in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette – “But now the proprioters find themselves in a greater predicament than ever, for the past winter being so exceedingly mild they have been unable to make a much as a pound of ice… Water there has been in abundance, but it has refused, with the coolest determination, to yield to the mild persuasions of the weather.” Henderson then wrote to the Duchy asking for a reduction in the cost of the lease due to the fact he was unable to make any profit due to the lack of ice and the expense of keeping the water free from weed. The rent for the lease was duly lowered to £5. The winter of 1878 – 1879 was much colder and Henderson in a letter to Barrington stated; “I have secured a large and very fine crop of Ice which I trust may prove remunerative”. The 1879 – 1880 winter proved to be nearly as successful as the previous one and he sold 216 tons 5 cwt. It was announced in the June of 1879 that the “Sourton Ice Company having opened a store at Exeter, are now prepared to deliver the superior block ice in large or small quantities. Application to be made to the Company’s local agent; Mr. T. Tucker, Magdalen Street, Exeter.” In 1880 – 1881 he did even better and the factory produced 300 tons of ice.  These years proved to be the pinnacle of the Sourton Ice Factory because in 1882 Henderson reported that due to a mild winter and increased competition from two artificial ice manufacturers in Plymouth he made a total loss and had been “tempted many times to throw the whole thing up”. In 1883 Henderson wrote to the Duchy stating that “The whole thing has proved a complete failure – when we had ice for sale we had no remunerative market, when prices got up we had no ice to offer.” The following years of 1884 and 1885 were equally disastrous due to first a mild year in which the ice he had collected melted in a sudden thaw which was followed by a year of heavy snow which meant the  ice could not be collected and stored. 

In February 1886 Henderson requested a meeting with the Duchy with a view to surrendering his lease. Several attempts were made to sell the ice factory as a going concern and in a letter from Barrington to the owner of the nearby Rattlebrook Peat Works it was apparent that a lot of money had been lost. In the letter it stated that several thousand pounds had been spent in the setting up of the ice factory. At that time, in Plymouth, ice was worth between £2 and £3 a ton. Then a company producing artificial ice began production and the price fell to £1 a ton. Ironically the artificial ice manufacturer could not make any profit and was the first to close down. The letter also stated that Henderson would be willing to sell the concern  for £100 or less and in Barrington’s opinion as ice prices had risen back up to just over £2 a ton and production costs were 13 shillings a ton it was still a viable concern. There were no offers to buy the ice factory and on the 5th of July 1886 an auction was held for the concern, only three people turned up and there was no purchase bids. In September 1886 the ponds were filled in and the fences taken down and presumably all the machinery sold off leaving just another landscape feature for prosperity. 

Is this another case of the retribution of ‘Old Crockern’ – you scratch my back and I will tear out your pockets?

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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