Doveton House, from the web site of the Women’s Christian College

In the hot coastal region that is the Coromandel Coast, naturally frozen water is unthinkable. Commercial production of ice too was unheard of till the 1800s. But once it became feasible, there was no stopping demand for the commodity in Madras. In their heyday, which was till the 1960s or thereabouts, when domestic refrigeration became popular, there were several factories in the city that produced ice. None of these have survived but ice production continues, and is a thriving trade, though hardly any of it is meant for the retail. Certainly none of today’s ice factories are the landmarks that their predecessors once were.

The story of the Tudor Ice Company is too well documented to merit repetition here. Established in 1826, it was the first to commercialise the ice trade in Madras. The Ice House that it built on the sea front in 1838 still stands, tended to lovingly by the Ramakrishna Order, which has converted it into a memorial for Swami Vivekananda. Tudor is also said to have introduced ice to Madras but that may not be true after all. Records have it that as early as 1802, Benjamin Roebuck had demonstrated a method to make ice in the city and was selling what he made. Indeed, it was the first attempt to produce ice by artificial means in the whole of India.

Benjamin was one of three brothers, the other two being William and Ebenezer. All three served in Madras and died in the Presidency, William in Madras, Benjamin in Vizag and Ebenezer in Ellore. They were all sons of Dr John Roebuck, a well-known inventor and chemist. It was perhaps this trait that Benjamin inherited, for he soon perfected ice making in Madras. It was not as though this was his sole activity, for he was a member of the Madras Civil Service. The Madras Mint was his responsibility, for he was its Assay Master. He also held the post of Military Paymaster General. He designed the docks at Corings, (now Coringa), which stands at the mouth of the Godavari. He was also into a considerable amount of private trade, being a partner in the firm of Abbot, Roebuck and Maitland, and in that capacity was President of the Exchange Committee of Fort St George. This was a body of free merchants who traded at the Exchange, now the Fort Museum. In the midst of all this he had time to kill a fellow civilian, Charles Floyer, in a duel.

In 1808, Benjamin Roebuck demonstrated the making of ice in Madras. It received wide publicity in the international press and the Literary Panorama and National Register noted that this was the first time the making of ice was demonstrated through an artificial process in the whole of India. It also said it looked forward to the time when a skating match could be organised for the benefit of His Highness The Nabob, after he returned from a Tyger Hunt. It is worth noting here that commercial ice production by artificial means was not available even in the US at that time.

There are detailed descriptions available of how Roebuck made the ice but these are all very confusing in the absence of illustrations. To a layperson it would appear that he made copious use of sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride) and saltpetre. The latter was a common cooling agent in England from the Regency period onwards and descriptions that survive of how it was used show that Roebuck’s method was but an improvement of the same. The one difference was that in England, the process was for cooling while in Madras, it was being used for production of ice. The apparatus was cumbersome for it comprised several conical vessels of copper lined with tin, a wooden tub of large dimensions, washers made of leather and brass tubing. After six hours, ninety pounds of water, fifty pounds of a mix of sal ammoniac and saltpetre, several ‘cumblies’ and insulated packaging of wool and hair, this contraption gave forth 32 pounds of ice. Interestingly, the water to be frozen was pre-cooled in a totally native fashion. Roebuck had observed that drinking water stored in earthen pots in Madras was at least ten degrees cooler than the ambient temperature and that was exactly how he pre-cooled his water.

John Arthur Roebuck, Benjamin’s nephew in his reminiscences states that his uncle was considered something of a wizard by the natives of Madras for the way he produced ice in front of a blazing fire. For all the publicity it received, Roebuck’s ice venture did not prosper though in no way due to any fault in its design or process. The firm of Abbot, Roebuck & Maitland, along with Thomas Parry, got involved in the ballooning debts of the Nawab. Roebuck was also implicated in the ensuing legal battle between two dubashes- Avadhanam Paupiah and Raya Reddy Row. Punishment was doled out in equal measure and he was banished to Vizag. There he contracted a very painful illness and was dead within the year. His obituary noted that among his various achievements was the introduction of ice to Madras.

Strangely for Roebuck’s ice-making facility, it found no takers after his death and we do not read of it any longer. Madras had to wait till 1833, when the precious commodity reappeared but no longer made locally. It was being imported all the way from the United States of America, thanks to Frederick Tudor’s initiative and drive. The first shipment, to Calcutta, set off on May 18, 1833 and that to Madras came a few months later. It is not clear as to where the ice was stored prior to the construction of the Ice House. It has been commonly believed that the ice was carried by coolies from the shore to the building. But recent renovations at the Vivekanandar Illam have shown the existence of an underground ramp that leads up to the beach. It would appear that the blocks were slid down this, and at the basement a mechanical crane or pulley raised them up for storage.

Madras would probably have remained happy with ice from Tudor’s but the mofussil, which could not avail of this luxury, was already experimenting with other technology. In places where the winter temperatures fell considerably, vast armies of labourers were set to make ice at night. The process involved freezing water in the open in shallow earthenware saucers, scooping up the ice so formed and then storing it in crudely insulated chambers for the summer months. The mofussil also began looking at importing ice-making machines, of which many options were emerging by the 1850s. By 1860, plenty of sulphuric ether and ammoniac machines were imported. A bigger success was Carre’s machine that turned out blocks of ice in five minutes even when the outside temperature was 35 deg C.

It was not long before Madras-based business houses began to consider the possibility of making ice commercially. Tudor’s monopoly was finished thereafter. The late 19th and early 20th centuries would see a new set of competitors, all of them local.

Where was Roebuck’s ice facility? Given that it was he who built what would later become Doveton House, now Women’s Christian College, it is quite likely that it was located there.

A detailed description of Roebuck’s ice apparatus is available here

This article is part of a series on lost and surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier instalments here