Grimsby resident Graeme Bassett admits he used to be “dubious” about whether it was worth trying to save the town’s ice factory, a derelict Victorian building on the docks. But then he looked inside.
“When you go in there, it’s the size and the proportion of it, and the winding spiral staircases. It’s like going into the Batcave or something like that. Suddenly, once you actually walk into it, that’s when it catches your imagination,” he said.
The ice factory, which was finished in 1901 and is an extraordinary piece of the town’s heritage, is awaiting planning permission for the first stage of a grand plan that would see it turned into a 1,400-seat theatre of “national quality”, capable of hosting large-scale shows and conferences.
The Grade II*-listed building had stood untouched for three decades before a deal with entrepreneur Tom Shutes in May and the arrival of £40,000 from Historic England to make the roof watertight.
Ice factories were not common in the Victorian era, and though a handful still exist in the UK – one as a trendy shopping centre in Margate, another in Cardiff turned into flats and shops – Grimsby is arguably the best preserved and the only one with the ice-making machinery still in place. The crushed ice made there was used to preserve fish caught at sea.
Plans to revitalise the network of factories, shops and industrial buildings the ice factory belongs to, known locally as the Kasbah, have been on the agenda for councillors, businesses and conservationists for decades but there is finally some momentum.
This is in part thanks to the £90m Grimsby Town deal in 2018, a project to bring new homes and investment into the town, but optimism was also boosted in March, when the government announced Grimsby would be one of eight new freeports in Britain, allowing goods to be processed there without taxes, a move that is likely to bring an economic uplift to the town.
ABP (Associated British Ports) Humber director Simon Bird said the deal with Shutes was an “exciting milestone”.
He said: “This project is part of ABP’s wider ambitions for heritage-led regeneration in the Port of Grimsby, breathing new economic life into an important conservation area.”
Bassett, who is secretary of the Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust, an organisation set up in 2010 to take charge of the conservation of the landmark, said though the plans had not been scrutinised in depth yet, any movement towards restoring the listed building was welcome locally.
He said: “There’s not a lot in Grimsby but there’s something here that is in the top 7% [of listed buildings] in the country, so that is a point of pride for people.”
Shutes agreed: “The local population are really proud of their heritage and their associations with the port. There’s lots of employment – everybody that you speak to in the town has had somebody in their family who either does currently or did work either in fishing or in the port.”
That includes Shutes himself, who is not from Grimsby, but whose grandfather owned fishing boats there. He said: “Generally, the feeling I get is that people will be absolutely thrilled to see something happen and that they care about it being saved.”
Although it is difficult to find real detractors in Grimsby, there are those who want to see the building knocked down and something new built in its place. A large part of the Kasbah was levelled in the 1990s, which Shutes believes many people now wish had not happened. “I think people regret its passing, you know, a bit like a favourite auntie or uncle. So I think that there will be more support than detraction. Development is a process that you’ve got to go through and if you don’t listen to local people then you probably build something that nobody wants,” he said.
If there is an initial criticism of this plan, it is that Grimsby ice factory could end up being added to the list of failed regeneration projects throughout the UK if there is not enough demand for culture locally.
But Shutes, who grew up in Snowdonia, is not concerned about that.
“I think one of the things that is really frustrating about being from an area like that, if you’re from a town or regional city in that way, is the sort of condescension in the idea that culture doesn’t belong there.
“[Grimsby has] an amazing depth of culture that people do care about and want to access.”