Edinburgh House, Whannels Road, Egmore

The history of ice being imported from America is well documented. Local ice-manufacture also has a history worth recording.

The Madras Ice Company was floated in 1865, with CA Ainslie of Binny, John Charles Loch of Parry and the legendary lawyer John Bruce Norton as its Directors. Despite its high profile origin it was a non-starter.

By the 1870s, the Royal Navy showed that ice could be made using what was called the steam process. The International Ice Company was established in Madras in 1874. Nothing much is known about it, beyond the fact that it killed the American import.

In 1886, Subramania Pillai, of the firm of P Vencatachellum’s, along with two other shareholders, began the South India Ice Factory located at 2, Poonamallee High Road, Periamet. Becoming sole proprietor in 1889, he modernised the facility. A new plant, capable of making 5 tonnes of ice a day, was imported from England. A storeroom for 80,000 pounds of ice was constructed, as was a cold storage. From 1895 to 1901, the plant was leased to Binny, which retailed the ice from a depot in Nungambakkam. When the lease ended, the company changed its name to P Vencatachellum’s Ice Factory, reflecting its connection with the world-famous brand name in curry powders and condiments. Ice from here was supplied to all the clubs, hotels, messes and hospitals. Divisions in the Venkatachellum family saw the closure of their ice facility in 1920. The condiments business still survives, 150 years after it’s founding.

A rival was the Crystal Ice Factory, Whannel’s Road, Egmore, run by WB Keene and John Ramsay Unger. Venkatachellum’s heyday was when Crystal went bust in 1904. But it revived in 1913, as the South Indian Royal Ice Factory (SIRIF), run by Unger. Legend has since persisted that he was Ramaswami Iyengar who converted but the Ungers were of Indo-Austrian origin, the first Unger serving as a gunner in the Madras Army. Later Ungers were civilians with John Ramsay Unger promoting Ramsay & Co, one of the contractors who built Ripon Buildings. John’s son, S Ramsay Unger, trained in refrigeration at Louisville, USA, ran the ice business. The Unger residence, Edinburgh House, was in the same compound.

By 1916, the plant had a 7 tonne capacity. John Ramsay Unger died in 1929. The business expanded under his son and by 1946 included cold-storage facilities for fish, meat and fruit. The South Indian Railway Company whose terminus was at Egmore Station was a big customer. Indians would discretely visit Unger’s for alcoholic refreshments on the sly and that was good business too.

Demand waned in the 1960s thanks to domestic and industrial refrigeration. With many family members settling abroad Unger’s factory changed hands, closing thereafter due to erratic power supply. The Albert Theatre stands where its cooling tower was. But decrepit Edinburgh House survives and its surrounding compound is home to several eateries, all catering to the passengers of the railway to which Unger once supplied ice.

This article appeared in The Hidden Histories Column of The Hindu