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Industrial Archaeology: What About Cooling?

By: , Posted on: September 21, 2016


I guess that looking back becomes more interesting later on in life and partly because there may be a bit more time for it. One only has to consider the time money and effort being put in to the maintenance and restoration of historic buildings to appreciate the high level of general public enthusiasm for the ingenuity and craftsmanship they represent. Looking at the industrial aspect we can see that a more recent development, the restoration of things mechanical has boomed since about the 1970s. There is no better example of this than steam railways, where there are now more than 50 UK lines operating, all well patronised and having a total length, if put end to end, of the distance from London to Edinburgh!

Therein lies the magic – Steam! Whether it be railways, pumping stations, traction engines, cotton mills, or ships, the presence of steam power guarantees attraction, not only audience, but funding and the will to preserve. Prior to the universal introduction of electric motor drive, early cooling plants were steam powered. Ice was the basic means of distributing cooling prior to the introduction of fridges – it started with the import of ice from Norway, became augmented by and subsequently replaced by ice making machinery in the early 20th century, but to my knowledge none of these early industrial steam powered plants has survived in working order – at least in the UK. An example was found in Berlin a few years back, preserved in a static state even if painted in a somewhat gaudy fashion. Perhaps someone knows if it still exists.


This brings me to the Grimsby Ice Factory. This unique survivor from the ice cooling era was built as a steam powered ice making facility serving the fishing fleet and onward transport requirements of Grimsby’s very large fishing industry. Highly significant on two counts; the Grade II* listed building and remarkable equipment in the machinery hall should combine to make it a top candidate for preservation.


The custodian of its restoration interests is a locally based Trust, which is hampered by the huge sums required to renovate the building, never maintained by its owners since final closure in 1990, and very restricted access due to its location within the security area of a working port. Funding has delivered a structural report and proposals for use of the buildings. A Heritage Lottery application is pending. Sadly, proposals to demolish nearby Victorian buildings have been approved notwithstanding very strong objections from SAVE Britain’s Heritage as well as Historic England (the government’s advisers on heritage) and others. The historic Grimsby Ice Factory itself is still protected by its Grade II* listing, but these nearby buildings, included in wider plans for leisure and cultural re-use are not protected.

Compressor Hall, 1932 (Cooling Post)
Compressor Hall, 2011 (Photo: Liz Humble, Purcell Miller Tritton LLP)

The steam driven machinery was replaced in 1932 by the electrically driven installation that has now become the focus of interest as possibly the only example of its type to survive more or less intact. The ammonia compressors, are the largest ever made by the renowned firm of J&E Hall Ltd, Dartford whose contract included supply and installation of the whole contract. Termed ‘high speed’ but slow by modern standards, they were coupled to 600bhp Metropolitan Vickers 250 rpm motors. The plant was required to deliver 1100 tons of ice per day. This had to be proved prior to customer acceptance, and the archive records, which include the logs taken during the trials, reveal that the compressor efficiency compared reasonably favourably with that of a modern high speed rotary screw types. Moreover, the system design featured low CO2 emission and energy saving techniques, some of which are now coming back into fashion and promoted as the latest emission reduction measures. These include ammonia refrigerant (now coming back into use), sea-water cooled condensers (to ensure low summer head pressure), use of ice as energy storage (night time production) and use of waste heat to free the ice blocks from the moulds in the factory.

Many in the cooling industry as well as local interests are behind the endeavor to ensure the survival of this last example of industrial-scale ice-making in the UK with its equipment still in situ. With the building deteriorating, I fear that a turning point is being reached. More information can be found in the Institute of Refrigeration paper put together by Chris Lester (Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology) and myself in 2015. The Trust website is and for news updates can be found via

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  1.  “Early Refrigeration at the Grimsby Ice Factory” Proceedings of the IOR, 2014/5

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