History of Ice cream in London

It’s on hot days like today where we Londoners should thank Victorian entrepreneur Carlo Gatti for introducing us to this splendid cool nectar.

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Photo by udra from Getty Images Pro


Carlo Gatti came to London in 1847 travelling from the Italian speaking region of Switzerland. He began his business selling refreshments to normal Londoners from a stall selling a waffle-like treat sprinkled with sugar in the summer and chestnuts in winter.

Gatti lived in Holborn where there was an established Italian community, including some relatives of his. By 1849 he had built up his business and moved into a partnership with Battista Bolla, a fellow Swiss. Together they opened a rare venture; a café and restaurant.

They added chocolate to their range, imaginatively putting a machine for making it in the shop window and exhibited the machine at the Great Exhibition, 1851. It was not their own invention but imported from France, but a novelty in London at that time. Queen Victoria herself may have seen it there.

It is believed Gatti may have been the first, or one of the first, to offer ice cream for sale to the public. We know that Gatti cut ice from the Regent’s Canal under a contract with the Regent’s Canal Company.

Also in 1851, Carlo Gatti established a stand in Hungerford Market, near where Charing Cross station is now. There he sold pastries and ices in little shells with two of his nephews working as waiters. The Penny Ice caught on rapidly and Gatti was at the forefront of selling ice cream to the ordinary man or woman, who had previously been unable to afford a taste of such luxury.


Victorian ice cream vendor – penny lick anyone?


Gatti built a large “ice well” capable of storing tons of ice in 1857. His ice house, near King’s Cross, is now the London Canal Museum. At c. 1860, Gatti began importing ice from Norway. The ice brought up the Thames river and then by canal barge to his ice house along the Regent’s canal. He built a second ice well in around 1862, and became the largest ice importer in London. He began to run a fleet of delivery carts, supplying ice for domestic iceboxes.

In Hungerford Market too, Gatti established a continental style café modelled on those in Paris, and suitable for a family. The business empire continued to develop but in 1854 Hungerford Market was burnt down in a huge fire. Fortunately Gatti had taken out insurance, which was unusual at the time, and used the insurance money to build a music hall which opened in 1857.

Learn more about Gatti and Victorian London on our Victorian Covent Garden Tour


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