Clerkenwell London

Italian Clerkenwell And The Manufacture of Ice Cream

A Swiss Italian man by the name of Gatti first arrived in London in 1847.  He was the innovator of the ice cream industry in Britain, opening the first stall selling ice cream outside Charring Cross Station in 1851. Henry Mayhew wrote in London Labour and the London Poor (1851):

“The sale of ice-creams was unknown in the streets until last summer and was first introduced by a man who purchased his ices of a confectioner in Holborn…The buyers had but a confused notion how the ice was to be swallowed.”Carlo Gatti and Ice

Carlo Gatti was an entrepreneur, running several catering establishments, and developing a huge business that imported ice from Norway.  Gatti also created an Ice Depot in Clerkenwell for the preservation of food. He employed a large team of Italian workers who distributed the blocks of ice to catering establishments in London.

Making Ice Cream

The ice also enabled many Italians in the colony to try their hand at a new skill, the making of ice cream. However, at this time there were no set standards and legislation relating to its preparation The custard mixture was often prepared from unknown ingredients and in unhygienic conditions.

Carlo Gatti Ice-cream Maker
* Carlo Gatti

Excerpt from The Lancet reported:

“This was a sort of washhouse, where the tub receiving the water supply leaked so as to convert the floor into a veritable quagmire, the slush being a mixture of dirt and mud, with rotting refuse of the eggs used for ices, soapsuds from the washing of linen, vegetable and household refuse. As each flagstone tilted up when trodden upon, it emitted from underneath effluvia, which accented the surrounding bad odours.”

The Times, 20 October 1879

“….the milk, the eggs, the cornflour mixtures, &c., used to make penny ices are left standing in the foulest dens, where they must absorb the noxious gases that infect the atmosphere, and where they are boiled and mixed in the same saucepans and cauldrons in which the Italians scald and wash their dirty linen. It is to be hoped that the freezing process may kill the germs of disease which must thus be occasionally present in the milk used for ices, but the idea is not appetizing, and the prospect somewhat uncertain; in short the entire moral social, and sanitary condition of this Italian colony calls for immediate reform.”

Once thoroughly cooled the boiled custard mixture was then poured into an “ice cream machine”. The device consisted of two cylindrical containers, an inner zinc container that fitted inside its larger wooden counterpart. The cold creamy custard was then carefully poured into the inner of the two and the space between was packed with a mixture of crushed  ice and salt. Finally the laborious task of manually cranking the handle began. The vigorous cranking agitated the mixture causing it to freeze and form the beloved gelato.

Workmen of Carlo Gatti

In 1877, Thomson and Smith, wrote about Street Life in London: “… little villainous-looking and dirty shops in which an enormous business is transacted in the sale of milk for the manufacture of halfpenny ices. This trade commences at about four in the morning. The men in varied and extraordinary déshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk-shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices”.

“The problems were threefold. Firstly that the “milk” used was not always 100% genuine, being adulterated with other substances that had never seen the inside of a cow. Secondly if the milk came from a real cow then it was often unclean, having come from farmers in London or nearby where conditions were squalid.”

A Manual Ice-cream Churning Machine


Once the ice cream was frozen to the desired consistency, the wooden vats of gelato were loaded onto hand propelled carts or barrows and whisked off to be sold on the public parks and fashionable streets of London.  The ice cream was served to the customer in a glass called a “penny lick”.

Thomson and Smith continued:  “the manner of serving was basically unhygienic and probably led to the death or unpleasant illness of a large proportion of customers. The original ice cream was presented in small glass receptacles a bit like thick glass eggcups. These were described as penny licks due to the fact that one licked the contents directly from the glass and returned it to the cart owner, to be refilled for the next client.” …… “a very questionable article, and the less consumed the better the consumer will find himself.”

However, practices for making and serving ice cream did improve over time, especially with the invention of wafers and cones. Here is an excerpt from an article published in the Municipal Journal 26 January 1900, which describes a report by Dr. Hamer, Assistant Medical Officer of Health to the London County Council :

Italians Cleaner than English Poor

“It is also satisfactory to be assured that the Italians have some regard for cleanliness. Dr. Hamer, as the result of his investigations, says:- The utensils in all instances were being carefully cleansed before use, and we found that the material left over from the preceding day was being thrown down the drain. In the matter of cleanliness, the Italians have, as a rule, a far higher standard than that which obtains among English people of a similar class; and although 1 have seen dirty milk measures from time to time upon registered milk-purveyors’ premises in various parts of London.  I have not hitherto noted any case in which exception could he taken to the conditions of the utensils used by the Italians at the premises visited in the Italian quarter.

An Italian from Clerkenwell Selling Ice-cream From A Street Barrow
Half Penny Ices from “Street Life of London” – by John Thompson & Adolphe Smith 1876  – LSE Library

Again, it was particularly noteworthy that washing or drying operations were almost always found to be in progress in the houses occupied by the Italians. Further, in the beds examined, the linen was found remarkably clean, and evidence of vermin was only exceptionally obtainable, far more exceptionally than is the case in tenements of a somewhat similar class not occupied by ice-cream vendors.”

The average ice cream vendor found that due to the inclement winter weather in Britain the sale of ice cream was just a seasonal occupation, so, as the colder months approached, the men started modifying and repainting their carts. They became vendors of other food produce, such as sweet roasted chestnuts, hot baked potatoes, and warming drinks.

So many Italians tried their hands at making ice cream that by 1900, it was estimated that there were 900 ice-cream barrows in Clerkenwell.  Many of the ice cream carts were gaily painted. Some carts were more sophisticated with decorative canopies.  Larger ice cream carts were horse-drawn.

Competition was rife in London, so a number of families took the courageous decision to relocate to other towns and cities such as Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and many regions of Scotland and Wales.  

Antonio Valvona, who had settled in Ancoats in Manchester, created a company that created the edible biscuit ice cream cone which revolutionised the ice cream industry. 

Others families chose to move to seaside holiday resorts such as Brighton. Many of these new enterprises went on to become very successful family businesses. This success gave them the opportunity to open ice cream parlours and cafés across Britain.

Ice Cream Vendor of Clerkenwell London


Ice Cream Parlour At The Seaside


Ice Cream Cones


Italian Heart

Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner.  Images marked * are in the Public Domain.

Photos marked with  are believed to be in the Public Domain due of their age.