Friday 22 April 2016

The Halfpenny Ice Man

"The men in varied and extraordinary deshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices." (

Swiss Italian Carlo Gatti started selling halfpenny ices in London, England in 1850.  Later, a "little Italy" developped in the Clerkenwell district of the city.  Halfpenny ices became a big industry in London, employing many Italian workers, many from Calabria.  A halfpenny ice man's day commenced at 4 am.  He picked up his ice in a barrow, which he mixed with sugar and flavouring (strawberry, lemon). Cream ices also contained milk.

The ice men would walk as much as 10 to 20 miles up and down the streets of London selling half penny ices.  John Thomson explains that "the Italian ice man sets an example of steady perserverance, economy and foresight".  There were the halfpenny ice men who looked dirty and rough around the edges.  These ice men would lay asphalt in the winter when the demand for ices was low.  With effort, however, the ice man could work his way up and trade in his barrow for a cart.  The most hard working ice men wintered in Italy, a luxury that most Londoners could ill afford.  

London lads looked forward to the arrival of the ice man's barrow like I waited for the Dicki Dee man's bicycle as a child.  Children would "buzz around the [ice men's] barrels like flies about a sugar barrel".  The treat was eaten by using both tongue and fingers, not on a cone like today's ice cream.

Entrepreneur Carlo Gatti's ices were such a success, that he branched out.  He started importing ice from Norway and then shipping it up the River Thames.  His business became London's biggest ice importer and made Gatti a millionaire by the time of his death in 1870. 

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