Power at the Ice Rink

Tom Hay looks into a mill with a very varied history in Durham

Market Place Mill (Grid reference NZ274427) in Durham City was known locally by the name of the miller, i.e. Robsons Mill, in the first half of the 19th century, then Hills and finally Martins Mill and though geographically in Walkergate, near the Market Place, it was originally the manorial or Bishops Mill. The first edition Ordnance Survey shows a corn mill and logwood mill (to produce a dye) on the site and corn milling was carried out until c1914.

In 1929 J.K.F. Smith (1884-1964) bought the property, reverted its name to Bishops Mill, and planned to use the water power of the river Wear to generate electricity to drive a refrigeration plant in the ice factory, which he established on the other side of the river in Millburngate, below Blagdons Leather Works.

In the early 1930s Icy Smith, as he was known, asked Gilkes of Kendal to assess the site and quote for a water turbine, but because of delays in receiving the quotation he bought a turbine from Carrick and Ritchie of Edinburgh. This turbine was never particularly satisfactory, and Gilkes later took over their good will.

Bishops Mill in Durham as it appeared in 1990.  Drawing by John Buxton

Bishops Mill in Durham as it appeared in 1990. Drawing by John Buxton

A contemporary photograph taken from the tower of St Margaret’s Church shows the ice factory with its name painted on the roof and across the river, painted on the wall of a building in the mill complex is “Battery Charging Station”.

Smith, son of a Barnard Castle blacksmith, had started making ice in a mill in the town in 1907, then he moved to Darlington and his ice factory in Valley Street was listed in local directories from 1914 to 1935. He became mayor of Darlington in 1929 and then moved to Durham where he became mayor in 1940 and later an alderman of the City.

During the 1930s as butchers and fishmongers started to install their own refrigeration the demand for blocks of ice for ice boxes diminished and Icy Smith turned his attention to having a skating rink. In 1937 he installed a 45 horse power Gilkes turbine driving a D.C. generator to power the motors of ammonia compressors. The ammonia refrigerant cooled brine, which circulated through a seven miles long network of pipes under the ice of the rink, which opened in 1940.

The rink was covered by a large green canvas tent, supported by poles down the centre. During the war, Canadian airmen came to the area and, as ice hockey players, gave a great boost to the popularity of the rink and originated the “Durham wasps” ice hockey team.

In 1946 the canvas tent, which had caught fire in 1945, was replaced by the present structure and in 1963 a second-hand Gilkes turbine replaced the Carrick and Ritchie machine.

The Gilkes turbine – No 5022 177 HP 10ft head 935 RPM, on the nameplate – was still running in 1990, when I last saw it, driving an alternative and J & E Hall compressor, using, Freon in place of ammonia refrigerant.

The refrigeration compressor for the Durhan Ice Rink.  Drawing by John Buxton

The refrigeration compressor for the Durhan Ice Rink. Drawing by John Buxton

The ice factory was still operating in the late 1940s, but not listed in the 1951 Durham City yearbook. I remember, as a schoolboy, collecting blocks of ice with my uncle, a butcher, and breaking them up, mixed with salt to fill the ice box in the slaughterhouse of his shop. A member of the Smith family had to be summoned from the mill by a bell in the factory as he crossed the river walking along a pipe to serve customers for ice.

During the 1960s ice rinks opened at Billingham Forum and at Whitley Bay, managed by the Smith family, trading as “Durham Ice and Sports Stadiums Ltd.”

The three storey Bishops Mill and house were demolished in 1973 to improve road access and the turbines and refrigeration equipment enclosed in a newly built single storey power house, with a pantile roof, at the end of the weir, downstream of Framwellgate Bridge.

From: Northumbrian Mills No 14. April 2000

3 Responses to Power at the Ice Rink

  1. sam says:

    ‘Icy’ smith was my great grandfather. I remember,as a child being shown the engine room ( we didn’t live locally as many of the Smith family did, but we were regular visitors to my grandma’s house which was attached to the rink). It was quite a scary place for a small child, with unguarded wheels and belts whizzing around. Health and safety was not a priority in the late 70’s. I’m told that my grandfather lost several fingers to the machinery, and that at least one person was killed by being sucked down towards the turbine as they were clearing debris from traps. I also remember an occasional ammonia leak. Sad that its gone. The rink made a great playground for me and my numerous cousins, especially when it was closed and we had it to ourselves.

  2. michael hart says:

    Wow that’s a history! Here’s something else about “the tunnel” as it was also known as, when salmon enter the river Wear they navigate their way upstream pointing towards the strongest flow,so the strongest flow came from the tunnel {mill} it was a magnet for salmon poachers from all over England, I personally know of and witnessed the taking of on night one in the 1996 autumn flood I witnessed 273 the 1st night all fish were between 10-27lbs 82 were salmon rest were sea trout a load of fish were also released as they were under the target weight, 2nd night of the flood 263 fish, night three 165,that in the 36 yrs ive been fishing this is considered a record between poachers,the poachers were as flows 2 x policemen, 1 fire chief, binman,dog catcher,bank clerk,students from both durham and other areas,ppl involved in game keeping!!! supermarket managers,retired folk,miners by the dozen! ppl involved in drugs,armed robbers,rag and bone men,deer poachers,as well as legitmate hunters,a professor from the local uni ! birds egg collectors,a prison officer,the list goes on. The fishing around the mill {tunnel} has always been a prohibited area for fishing,next year 2016 the fishing will cease as the area is deemed a area of scientific study [conservation] where the grass starts on the picture below the wier is where the NRA used to trap salmon smolts in April time they were sent off to other rivers where the stocks of both salmon and sea trout had been depleted…….

    Anyway its the end of a chapter for me,it will never ever be like that again with regards to poaching salmon from the river wear…….bye bye durham free stretch

  3. Damian smith says:

    Thank you for the info ,it was really interesting!! ,I too was a distant relation to icy smith,

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