Ice House

An ice house was a very familiar feature of many country estates and Sir Richard Hotham, who was regarded as creator of this seaside resort, introduced one as another of his go-ahead ideas. Thus Bognor’s ice house dates from circa 1792.

For a town that has a world wide reputation for the manufacture of refrigerators, it is singularly appropriate that Bognor Regis should possess an excellent example of one of the earliest types of ‘fridge’ - an 18th century ice house once in the grounds of Hotham Park House.” Wrote Gerard Young, local historian, in the Bognor Post on 17th October 1959. Therefore this week I thought we could take a look at the ‘ice business’ in Bognor.

The Ice House is situated just in front of the Edward Bryant School in London Road, quite near the Bognor Regis Library. Bognor’s ice house is in a remarkable state of preservation and is a tribute to the skill of the men who built it. The construction consists of a 28ft. deep central area from the dome to the floor, which is below ground level, and the diameter of the chamber is approximately 12ft. The circular exterior wall is of fine brickwork with the dome being cemented on the inside.

An extra skin of brick and flint thickened the exterior of the Ice House and for further insulation a mound of earth was built around it and planted with the necessary trees to provide even more shade. Originally the construction would have been within a wall as part of the estate of Sir Richard Hotham. The floors in many ice houses tended to be made of pebbles to facilitate drainage. Principally these buildings were used for the storage of ice, because if it is packed together in a large mass, within a small area it proved to slow down the melting process. Hence it would last even longer when protected within a construction hence the need for these ice houses around the countryside.

Many of the earliest ice houses were used to provide ice for preparing summer desserts and the cooling of wines when entertaining. As Sir Richard had planned to entertain Royalty the need to preserve and cool his refreshments was an important and essential matter. It is thought that the ice itself was cut during the winter months from a stream near East Lake in London Road. Once cut the ice was laid out within the deep circular pit and layered between straw matting. When required it would be hauled out by means of a pulley wheel. There was a report in 1793, which viewed “stalwart servants had heaved up the ice blocks and hurried them away on a cart across the woodlands of the estate to the waiting kitchen staff.”

The building remained in use up to the First World War, after which it was only used as a cold storage area. In 1941 it was used for the storage of apples, in one instance for over 2 years, such was the airtight nature of the construction. The Ice House is now beside the main road and many people pass by without much interest to what it actually is. Many people have wondered what it looks like inside, and during a recent Sands of Time event it was opened for the general public to peer into the interior. In fact it was so popular that over 500 people turned up to have a look.

Around 1929 large quantities of ice were again required in Bognor and this time by a fishmonger. His solution was somewhat similar to Sir Richard Hotham in that he decided to make his own refrigerator and by purchasing a compressor, he was then able to achieve his aims. These were the early beginnings of our other icemaker, Charles Purley and Lec Refrigeration.

Charles Purley was born in Twickenham in 1910 and before the age of 14 had taken himself, his mother’s bike and pocket money to Brighton, where he purchased fresh fish, which he sold in the streets, making a profit. By 1929 he moved to Bognor, complete with a thriving fishmongers and he travelled to Billingsgate to purchase his fish. However he obviously required large quantities of ice and due to various problems decided to make his own. Following the closure of Craigweil House, Charles Purley was able to purchase a C02 compressor to make a refrigerator. A friend in Brighton saw it and asked Charles to make him one. Thus started a new business in North Bersted within the Royal Parade, which was Charles Purley’s fish shop and it became known as the North Bersted Engineering Company. I recently heard from a lady who could remember munitions being made here as well.

In 1939 Charles Purely was to close down his original business as a fishmonger and become a full time engineer. By 1942 his new business had expanded and became known as the Longford Engineering Company with premises in Longford Road. The Company moved again in 1946 to Shripney Road when he had a staff of 150 with a sales turnover of £8,000. At this time the Company purchased their first aircraft, and then rented an airfield adjacent to the factory site. It was not until 1954 that the Company became known as Lec Refrigeration Co. Ltd.

At the beginning they were making 27 fridges per week and by the late 1940’s Lec was turning out over 2,000 refrigerators per week and had 90% of the British export market to Canada and was making inroads into America.

In the 1950’s sales trips were taken on board the Lec plane with chief pilot George Farley. In 1960 Lec Refrigeration was represented on the British stand of the Moscow Exhibition. There was a photo taken at the exhibition of Russian Premier, Mr. Khrushchev inspecting a Lec refrigerator. In 1959 “Which” judged one of the models, costing £72.10s.0d - The best buy!

By 1989 the Company was capable of producing up to 3,000 fridges per day and employed nearly 1900 people. They were virtually self sufficient, making their own castings, compressors, motors, and plastic components.

Many people in the town have fond memories of working at Lec and no doubt have many stories to tell, but things have changed. Charles Purley is no longer there, David, his son was killed in a flying accident off Bognor Regis seafront in 1985. The Company was purchased in 1994 by the Malaysia based Company – Sime Darby

In the last 10 years there have been numerous redundancies, opening and closing of shifts and factories, as we are enticed to buy fridges from around the world. However this will not diminish the memories of generations of Bognorians who have been employed by this International Company – locally.

Many changes have taken place in the production of ice since 1792. However the Ice House and Lec Refrigeration will always be intrinsically linked with the history of this seaside resort. They both have interesting histories and I sincerely hope that the young people of this town and the children at the Edward Bryant School appreciate how important the Ice House is in historical terms both nationally and locally and it is something of which we should be proud.

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