Underground Domestic Facilities

The old saying ”there is nothing new under the sun” is very apt when comparing the contents of a modern kitchen with those of earlier times. All facilities were there, albeit in a more primitive form. On large estates in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the domestic offices were situated away from the main building complex. The former were extensive with brew houses and fuel sheds above ground but a number of places were sited underground, e.g. meat stores, vegetable cellars, ice wells, water cisterns, etc. All were essential to the smooth running of an estate which often catered for large numbers of workers as well as the residents.

If the gardens had been landscaped by an expert, they sometimes included a bath house, dairy, grottos, ornamental ponds and lakes – all requiring a complicated system of water supply and disposal. Channels and drains were laid and settling tanks, storage cisterns and pumps installed. Two of the most common utilitarian outbuildings still surviving today are the Ice Well and Cesspit, often in surprisingly good condition after 200 years or longer. This may be due to the fact that in underground design the buildings were somewhat similar with deep brick-lined pits sunk into the ground, wide at the top and tapering towards the bottom. They were usually disguised to blend into the surroundings by the addition of a plant and tree covered mound or a summerhouse type of superstructure.

Ice Wells

These were devices for storing ice which was collected in winter from a nearby pond or lake. They were constructed either completely or partly underground and were lined with bricks as an egg-shaped or domed container. In order to stop the ice from melting for as long as possible (this could be for many months or even up to a year) they were made with cavity walls for maximum insulation. Strong double doors, facing North, were fitted to the entrance passage. Naturally, some of the ice melted during the year and the accumulated melt-water was drained away at the base of the structure. A drain or soakaway was constructed in the floor for this purpose and was fitted with a vermin-proof barrier. The earth mound covering the dome was planted with shady trees and ivy, which was believed to keep the mound cool and dry through the process of evaporation.

An ice House was a building above ground for storing ice and foodstuffs, often used to hang meat and game. In the past, this has often led to confusion since not all Ice Wells have ”houses” and not all Ice Houses have ”wells”. Landscape gardeners of the 18th and early 19th centuries differentiate quite clearly in their specifications for each structure, starting with the ”Ice Hole” which was little more than a brick-lined pit, insulated on ail sides with a removable insulated top. This was comparatively cheap to build and maintain. Ice Wells and Houses were more elaborate and expensive, and many variations on the basic design still exist today. It is interesting to examine original drawings and plans designed by the leading landscape gardeners of the day, each one competing against the other to produce the most original and ”cunning” (unobtrusive or decorative) exterior to these somewhat mundane domestic buildings.

The use of ice for keeping food fresh is very ancient. The Romans certainly regarded it as a desirable asset to be able to serve cool drinks to guests, but the use of ice in Britain did not become common until the 17th century. It is believed that Ice Wells were introduced from France by King Charles 11 who had one built at Upper St James Park (now Green Park) in 1664. Ice was regarded as a super luxury and, during the 18th century, the possession of an Ice Well was something of a status symbol. It is unlikely that the ice itself was used in culinary or medicinal recipes, but pans of clean water were placed in the Ice Well to freeze over. This was then used to cool wine or in the kitchen to speed the setting of jellies, etc. and to keep meat fresh in hot weather. In the sick room it was used to cool fevers, an essential treatment in an age when a high temperature or bout of ”flu could kill. One drastic measure was to immerse a patient in a bath of water and crushed ice, a treatment known as a ”slush bath”.

Preparing the Ice Well was a complicated task, usually carried out under the supervision of the head gardener. In late autumn it was emptied of all previous residue and the interior was carefully cleaned and given a coat of lime wash. The doors and the trap door in the roof were left open to allow air to circulate and sacks of unslaked lime were placed inside to absorb any moisture. As soon as the pond froze over, all available hands were drafted in to fill the Ice Well as soon as possible. If the weather was not severe enough to freeze water into ice, compacted snow would be used instead.

The walls were lined with bundles of barley straw to improve insulation and to assist with drainage of the melt-water. Alternate layers of ice and straw were then placed in the well and rammed in to make a solid freezing mass. When full, the trap door in the roof was closed and sealed with clay to make it airtight. Entry to the well was restricted as much as possible and the system of double doors kept the cold air from escaping. The filling of Ice Wells was always a gamble and, if possible, ice would be collected after a particularly hard frost when it was regarded as being purer and more free from sediment.

By the beginning of the 19th century, natural ice from Norway was being shipped over and, with the advent of railways, transportation of ice became commonplace. Most households had an icebox sunk in a shady part of the garden and ice was being delivered in slabs by regular rounds men. Ice Wells became obsolete, although there is a record of one being used as late as the 1920s. It is always a worthwhile effort when visiting a stately home to take a walk around the grounds. There are still a number of Ice Wells surviving and many are in excellent condition, such as those at Green Street Green and Bromley.


There is no polite way to describe a lavatory; it is what it is and no dressing up with different names like ”loo” can alter the fact that its function is to dispose of human waste in as discreet and hygienic a manner as possible. A quick flush and as far as we are concerned it is out of sight and out of mind. Few people in Kent in this day and age would boast about owning a cesspit (or if they do it is referred to as a ”septic tank”) but in country districts this is often still the only means of waste disposal available.

The cost and inconvenience of emptying a cesspit today is prohibitive and most people convert to mains drainage when the opportunity arrives. In early years, however, the cesspit was quite common and even some large Victorian villas, set in neat rows in the suburbs of London, had cesspits rather than drains to proper sewers. Very large numbers of these survive underground and are constantly being discovered by builders re-developing an old neighbourhood.

At Bexleyheath, during the clearing of a site now occupied by Woolwich Building Society offices, some 42 cesspits were uncovered during the demolition of a row of small Victorian and Edwardian houses. As these had been anticipated, they were dealt with promptly by the contractors as well as archaeologists, to whom the uncovering of a cesspit is an interesting find indeed. Many odd items of everyday life were washed into the unsavoury depths and, as the losers were invariably unwilling to risk retrieving them, we can gain interesting artefacts from such sources.

The siting of a cesspit was of great importance as seepage of pollutants into drinking water was a constant hazard. Ail too often the simple rules of hygiene were ignored by ordinary households and the dumping of sewage near water supplies undoubtedly contributed to the epidemics of plague, etc. which decimated many medieval villages. The Black Death forced people to change their habits and rules were introduced in towns forcing people to dig cesspits. These were emptied periodically by ”gongfermers” or ”night men” who were highly paid for this unpleasant duty. Some cesspits were so large that it took several nights to empty them and one under Newgate Gaol in 1281 took 13 men5 nights to clear. In the early days the waste was taken outside the town boundaries and often sold to farmers as a fertiliser. Eventually, however, the amount became so great that it was emptied into the nearest river in the forlorn hope that it would be dispersed elsewhere. Even today, this practice is carried on by a number of water authorities.

The size and shape of cesspits has varied greatly down the years but most consist of a brick-lined pit with some form of cover. Gaps were left in the brickwork at the sides and bottom to allow the liquid to drain away. Medieval ones tended to be large and some were associated with complex drainage systems. At Boxley Abbey, Kent, there is a good example of an associated drain that is large enough to stand up in. This connected with the ”Neccessarium” above and, by a system of sluices, water from a nearby stream could be directed into the drain to flush the waste into the cesspit. Many so-called secret passages are really humble sewerage systems!

Georgian cesspits were much smaller and, rather than empty them when full, it was often the practice to dig a new one. It is thus possible to find two or three cesspits side by side which span several decades of use. In Victorian times, the numerous terraced houses had to site the cesspits at the end of the garden and it was often the practice for several houses to share a common cesspit. Most such terraces have an alley along the back of the garden and this was to allow access for the ”night men”. Bad plumbing was common at that time and there were many music hail jokes about ”the drains”, visitors being expected politely to ignore the smell.

A common practice in parts of Kent was to knock the bottom completely out of cesspits and this would allow more to drain away into the chalk. Although this meant that they didn”t need to be emptied so often, it was rather shortsighted since wells took water from the same chalk! Water from the chalk of the Medway area is still high in nitrate content for this reason. Archaeological excavation of a cesspit is not everyone”s choice but analysis of the soil content can yield interesting insights into the diets of people using it.

Many cesspits would have been filled in when abandoned but some were merely covered over with a slab or wooden cover. Examples open up from time to time but they are rarely deep enough to present a danger. In some places, however, houses adapted abandoned deneholes as cesspits that were ideal since the underground space meant that they never needed emptying. The top part of the shaft was lined with bricks and arched over at the top, sometimes with a small access hole. Earthenware pipes directed the sewage into the shaft and this has caused problems in the past where the brick lining has been eroded and fallen away.

Water Cisterns

Another underground feature found in bigger houses was the water cistern. This was a large brick-lined chamber that was made watertight and arched over with a small access hole. Rainwater from the roof was directed into the cistern where it could be stored for future use, being softer than water drawn from a well in the chalk. Sometimes a pipe connected the cistern to a hand pump in the kitchen. Like cesspits, a number of water cisterns were merely slabbed over when abandoned but the workmanship often means that the brickwork is still sound.