In January 1839 a ship came through the heads of Sydney with a cargo never before seen and one that would change the very fabric of the colonial society. 

On board the barque Tartar sailing out of Boston, USA was a cargo of ice, cut straight out of the frozen lakes of the American north.  250 tons made it through out of an original 400 and this was soon converted into ice drinks and iced punch for the Sydney summer crowd. 

The ice was a sensation in Sydney’s sweltering summer heat with crowds flocking to Thomas Dunsdon’s confectionary shop in George Street to get some of its cool goodness.

The frozen water trade was one of Sydney’s more usual imports of the nineteenth century.  However the long sea voyage also made it difficult and only two shipments made it in 1839 and 1840.  The ice that did get here though was sold as far away as Newcastle, Wollongong and out to Windsor.

In March 1853 another load arrived, 366 tons in all.  Newspaper advertisements proclaimed its benefits as a healthy additive, particularly in water.  Sydney has always been a party town, but that’s still a big effort for a cold drink.

By now the insulation on ships had improved so more ice got made it.  Once here, insulated cool rooms meant the ice survived longer, with the latest shipment lasting until late October.  Just two months later another ice ship arrived, just in time for Christmas, with enough for iced sherry cobblers, iced brandy smashers, iced lemonade and soda water all round. 

Curiously at least one ship returned with 250 tons of ice on board for sale in the San Francisco gold fields for the northern summer.

Still ice ships kept coming through 1854, 1855 and 1856, with possibly the first import of chilled fruit coming in the form of American apples in June 1856.  But by now there was serious competition from a new fangled contraption ­ an ice machine!

A Scot by the name of James Harrison arrived in Sydney via Melbourne in 1860 to form the Sydney Ice Company with the engineers PN Russell and Company.  It only lasted a year but people saw the potential.  In 1862 the defunct company was bought out by a newly arrived French engineer Eugene Nicolle and his partners, the Wilkinson brothers.  They built a new ice plant in Darlinghurst (remembered in the name Ice Street), opening in early 1863.  Nicolle’s technique used a mix of ammonia and water, with a cooling effect produced as the ammonia was absorbed by the water.  The ammonia could be removed from the water by boiling and recycled.  Soon enough Nicolle was patenting his refrigeration machines and once he had convinced local auctioneer, engineer and pastoral financier Thomas Sutcliffe Mort of its merits, he had a wealthy backer. 

By now it was more than just ice for drinks.  Nicolle’s machines could potentially open up a whole new trade ­ frozen meat exports to England.  Australia by the 1870s had a lot of animals to sell and not enough people to eat them.  If refrigeration could be perfected, not only could excess meat be stored but it could also be sent by ship to overseas markets.  However Nicolle’s techniques were never fully adapted to work on board ship.  His machines leaked or corroded at sea, so his work was largely confined to the shore. 

Mort used this process to open a large cold store at Darling Harbour in 1875, supplied by his abattoir 100 miles away.  The carcasses were bought in specially refrigerated train wagons and frozen for export.  He also made ice on site and stored dairy foods.  It was a success but one neither Mort nor Nicolle enjoyed for long.  Mort died in 1878 and Nicolle retired the same year.

Interior views of Mort's meat-preserving establishment June 12, 1876

One last break through was yet to come.  Brothers Thomas and Andrew McIlwraith and their partner Malcolm McEacharn, who were graziers and ship-owners fitted a Scottish designed refrigeration unit into one of their ships out of Sydney in 1879.  Loaded with 40 ton of meat it sailed for London via Melbourne in December.  When it arrived in London in February the meat was perfectly fine; it was cooked and eaten at a celebratory lunch with well reported in the London press. It was the beginning of the meat trade for Australia and the rest of the world.

Now we all have freezers and fridges.  Ice water, cold beer, frozen meat, chilled fruit is part of the everyday for most of us.  It’s a bit amazing really and even more so to think it started by cutting ice out a frozen lake halfway around the world.

In January 1839 a ship came through the heads of Sydney with a cargo never before seen and one that would change the very fabric of the colonial society.  On board the barque Tartar sailing out of Boston, USA was a cargo of ice, cut straight out of the frozen lakes of the American north.  250 tons made it through out of an original 400 and this was soon converted into ice drinks and iced punch for the Sydney summer crowd.  The ice was a sensation in Sydney’s sweltering summer heat with crowds flocking to Thomas Dunsdon’s confectionary shop in George Street to get some of its cool goodness.

The frozen water trade was one of Sydney’s more usual imports of the nineteenth century.  However the long sea voyage also made it difficult and only two shipments made it in 1839 and 1840.  The ice that did get here though was sold as far away as Newcastle, Wollongong and out to Windsor.

In March 1853 another load arrived, 366 tons in all.  Newspaper advertisements proclaimed its benefits as a healthy additive, particularly in water.  Sydney has always been a party town, but that’s still a big effort for a cold drink.

By now the insulation on ships had improved so more ice got made it.  Once here, insulated cool rooms meant the ice survived longer, with the latest shipment lasting until late October.  Just two months later another ice ship arrived, just in time for Christmas, with enough for iced sherry cobblers, iced brandy smashers, iced lemonade and soda water all round. 

Curiously at least one ship returned with 250 tons of ice on board for sale in the San Francisco gold fields for the northern summer.

Still ice ships kept coming through 1854, 1855 and 1856, with possibly the first import of chilled fruit coming in the form of American apples in June 1856.  But by now there was serious competition from a new fangled contraption ­ an ice machine!

A Scot by the name of James Harrison arrived in Sydney via Melbourne in 1860 to form the Sydney Ice Company with the engineers PN Russell and Company.  It only lasted a year but people saw the potential.  In 1862 the defunct company was bought out by a newly arrived French engineer Eugene Nicolle and his partners, the Wilkinson brothers.  They built a new ice plant in Darlinghurst (remembered in the name Ice Street), opening in early 1863.  Nicolle’s technique used a mix of ammonia and water, with a cooling effect produced as the ammonia was absorbed by the water.  The ammonia could be removed from the water by boiling and recycled.  Soon enough Nicolle was patenting his refrigeration machines and once he had convinced local auctioneer, engineer and pastoral financier Thomas Sutcliffe Mort of its merits, he had a wealthy backer. 

By now it was more than just ice for drinks.  Nicolle’s machines could potentially open up a whole new trade ­ frozen meat exports to England.  Australia by the 1870s had a lot of animals to sell and not enough people to eat them.  If refrigeration could be perfected, not only could excess meat be stored but it could also be sent by ship to overseas markets.  However Nicolle’s techniques were never fully adapted to work on board ship.  His machines leaked or corroded at sea, so his work was largely confined to the shore. 

Mort used this process to open a large cold store at Darling Harbour in 1875, supplied by his abattoir 100 miles away.  The carcasses were bought in specially refrigerated train wagons and frozen for export.  He also made ice on site and stored dairy foods.  It was a success but one neither Mort nor Nicolle enjoyed for long.  Mort died in 1878 and Nicolle retired the same year.

One last break through was yet to come.  Brothers Thomas and Andrew McIlwraith and their partner Malcolm McEacharn, who were graziers and ship-owners fitted a Scottish designed refrigeration unit into one of their ships out of Sydney in 1879.  Loaded with 40 ton of meat it sailed for London via Melbourne in December.  When it arrived in London in February the meat was perfectly fine; it was cooked and eaten at a celebratory lunch with well reported in the London press. It was the beginning of the meat trade for Australia and the rest of the world.

Now we all have freezers and fridges.  Ice water, cold beer, frozen meat, chilled fruit is part of the everyday for most of us.  It’s a bit amazing really and even more so to think it started by cutting ice out a frozen lake halfway around the world.

want to read some more? Check the Sydney Journal out.

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