Ice is probably a strange thing to list but thanks to this man it was, for a very short time, a thriving industry on northern Dartmoor.
In wintertime the one thing Dartmoor is not short of is ice and if you go back before the days of refrigerators ice was the only way of storing some foods. Many of the large estate houses had their own separate ice houses and many of the farms had their 'potato caves' for cool storage but what about the ordinary people who lived in towns and cities?
In September 1874 James Henderson approached the Duchy of Cornwall with a view to leasing Sourton hill for the purpose of collecting naturally produced ice throughout the winter months. This particular spot was ideal in so much as the nearby railway station at Bridestowe provided ideal access to both Plymouth and Exeter. Plymouth at this time had a thriving fish market supplying by rail and boat the cities of London, Bath, Manchester and Bristol and it was this industry that used large quantities of ice to preserve the fish during transit. In addition there was the household market in both the Plymouth and Exeter areas.
Henderson's initial application was for a 'sett' of 75 acres for which he offered to pay a minimum of £15. This offer was duely declined by the Duchy on the grounds that it would damage the pasturage of the area. It seems that Henderson had already began work prior to his application and in early December the Duchy's bailiff, Mr. Barrington sent him a reprove stating that Henderson had committed 'trespass'.
On 21st January 1875 Henderson submitted a new proposal, this time he was asking to lease 5 or 6 acres and accompanied this request with a memorial from the local farmers stating they would have no objection to his scheme. This time the application was successful and on the 6th August 1875 an indenture was issued granting permission to "to form ponds, and collect, and store ice for a term of 21 years running from February 1875 at an annual rent of £10." It also stipulated that the ponds were to be no deeper than 3ft and that they must be "securely fenced for the protection of Man and Beast". A further clause stated that on completion of the lease the ponds must be filled in and the ground levelled.
Thus the work began on building the ice factory
In the winter of 1875 there was a 'serious accident' involving the cement lining of the ponds which meant much of what ice was collected could not be stored in blocks which resulted in less than 100 tons being sold. The following two winters, 1876 - 1877 and 1877 - 1878 saw very mild weather which meant the ice could not be stored.
The winter of 1878 - 1879 was much colder and Henderson in a letter to Barrington stated; "I have secured a large and very fine crop of Ice which I trust may prove remunerative". The 1879 - 1880 winter proved to be nearly as successful as the previous one and he sold 216 tons 5 cwt. In 1880 - 1881 he did even better and the factory produced 300 tons of ice.
These years proved to be the pinnacle of the Sourton Ice Factory because in 1882 Henderson reported that due to a mild winter and increased competition from two artificial ice manufacturers in Plymouth he made a total loss and had been "tempted many times to throw the whole thing up".
In 1883 Henderson wrote to the Duchy stating that "The whole thing has proved a complete failure - when we had ice for sale we had no remunerative market, when prices got up we had no ice to offer."
The following years of 1884 and 1885 were equally disastrous due to first a mild year in which the ice he had collected melted in a sudden thaw which was followed by a year of heavy snow which meant the ice could not be collected and stored.
In February 1886 Henderson requested a meeting with the Duchy with a view to surrendering his lease.
At that time, in Plymouth, ice was worth between £2 and £3 a ton. Then a company producing artificial ice began production and the price fell to £1 a ton. Ironically the artificial ice manufacturer could not make any profit and was the first to close down. The letter also stated that Henderson would be willing to sell the concern for £100 or less and in Barrington's opinion as ice prices had risen back up to just over £2 a ton and production costs were 13 shillings a ton it was still a viable concern. There were no offers to buy the ice factory and on the 5th of July 1886 an auction was held for the concern, only three people turned up and there was no purchase bids. In September 1886 the ponds were filled in and the fences taken down and presumably all the machinery sold off leaving just another landscape that we see today for prosperity.