It is hard to believe, but it is a fact that, once upon a time there was an Ice house in Calcutta, built exclusively to store ice for the consumption of the European community of the city. It is obvious that the hot, humid and stuffy weather of Calcutta was unbearable for them and they desperately wished to have at least icy drinks to soothe their thirsty souls.
The British were aware that the Mughal Emperors of India used Himalayan ice as one of their luxury items. However, they found the procedure very much expensive, as it involved maintaining the ice fields, which need big plots of land and was labour intensive.
It is not that during that time Calcutta had not seen ice. There was for long the Hooghly ice, made by freezing water in shallow pits. In fact, all through the winters, starting from late December until the end of January, ice regularly arrived in the city in large quantities from Chinsurah, a small village along the River Hoogly, about 40 kms away from the city. Strangely, the peculiar soil and climatic condition of Chinsura allowed the manufacturers to freeze water in shallow pits and collect thin sheets of ice at night, which were immediately transported to Calcutta by boat. Unfortunately, the quality of that ice was not good enough for human consumption. It was filthy ice, almost sloppy and gritty, which could be used for cooling the containers of water or wine and never to put it into the drink itself. That was not the kind of ice what the British East India Company wanted for Calcutta and they were eagerly looking for a viable means to get regular supply of ice for the European community in all seasons.
The demand of the Company was satisfactorily met through the venture of Frederick Tudor, a Boston merchant, who built his fortunes on the ice trade and came to be known as the ‘Ice King.’ Nathaniel Jervis Wyeth, one of his associates, invented a twin-bladed, horse-drawn ice-cutter, which meant that ice sheets could be cut up into big squares. These giant cubes were packed tightly, insulated with sawdust to quell melting during a long voyage.
On May 12, 1833, a ship named Tuscany, sailed from Boston for Calcutta, carrying 180 tonnes of ice and when it docked at the Calcutta port on September 6, the ship still had 100 tonnes of ice in its hold. During unloading, the porters were amazed at the giant sized icy cubes, which were later described by a contemporary historian as crystal blocks of Yankee coldness.
Within three days of the ship's arrival, the British residents of Calcutta raised enough money to set up an ice house to preserve the precious cargo of the Massachusetts ice. At four annas per pound, the sparkling clean ice was considered cheaper than the indigenous Chinsurah slush. With increasing demand, the ‘frozen water’ trade, as it was then called, thrived sharply. From a modest 100 tonnes in 1833, the trade increased to almost 3,000 tonnes in 1847. As the supply increased, the price also came down to about two annas per pound. In case of delayed arrival of the carrying ship, sale of the available ice was rationed and one had to produce a medical certificate to get it.
Over a period of 20 years, Frederick Tudor made a profit of US $220,000 just from exporting ice to Calcutta and went on to become the 'ice king'. In fact, bulk of ice continued to be exported to India for another fifty years with ice-houses being established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras as well. However, the first Ice House in the country was built in Calcutta at the instance of Lord Bentinck with public money on Hare Street, near the present Metcalfe Hall.
However, in 1862, the world was introduced to ice-making machines and one of the particular machines, Siebe’s Ether Ice-machine, met the fancy of the Colonial India.
With the formation of the Bengal Ice Company, India’s first ice factory in 1878, followed by the Crystal Ice Company, ended the monopoly business of the American ice trade. The two companies, as mentioned above, amalgamated soon under the style of the present Calcutta Ice Association Ltd. Consequent to the sufficient supply of ice, readily available in the market, the Calcutta Ice house was razed to the ground in 1882.