It was a late summer’s night. I was driving home from work. The air was sticky and warm, and in the distance the tinny jangle of ‘Greensleeves’ whirred softly from an ice cream van. Cars drifted forward together in serene unanimity as the sun set slowly over Manchester, soon to disperse, each returning to our individual houses, our barbeques and dogs and families, our autonomous lives.

The chime of the ice cream van was growing louder, with its tantalising promise of raspberry ripples, 99s and knickerbocker glories, when I began to hear something else. Coarse, booming male voices were competing with the familiar, mechanised melody of my childhood. As I pulled onto a roundabout, I was stopped in my tracks. There, heaving their vans round and round in circles, aggressively chasing each other’s tails, were two enraged ice cream men hurling abuse at each other. The blocked oncoming cars didn’t know whether to laugh or beep horns at the bizarre scene, which seemed so obviously comical, yet at the same time so sinister. After a while, the turf war abated, both men driving their separate ways, and the bemused traffic again resumed its eager journey home.

This anecdote is not an isolated row over just one Cornetto. Ice cream has historically been a cause of conflict in Manchester. Many have heard about the violent Ice Cream Wars which led to several murders in Glasgow in the 1980s, but Manchester’s ice cream scene has also acquired a reputation for losing its cool.

Ice cream was an enormously lucrative business for Italian immigrants in Manchester at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, the very first ice cream cone was allegedly invented here in 1902 by an ice cream manufacturer named Antonio Valvona. The Italians mostly lived in Ancoats – then labelled Manchester’s own Little Italy – and blended well with the Irish already there. It was a literal melting pot of cultures. The ice cream businesses thrived until World War II, when Churchill declared of the Italians, ‘Collar the lot!’ and Italian men were interned until Italy’s capitulation. During this difficult time, most ice cream factories and vendors were closed.

Following the war, due to the end of rationing, the baby boom, and the new motorised vans, the ice cream industry in Manchester again experienced a boom. But a new influx of immigrants into the area around this time meant that competition was fierce. Anthony Rea, born into an Ancoats Italian ice cream family, describes on his website how there were many conflicts: “As is the way with Italians, these often led to vendettas.” The ice cream turf wars in Manchester during the 60s and 70s gave a whole new meaning to the expression ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’.

But has this history of conflict jeopardised Manchester’s ice cream van economy? Rea suggests that if the old ice cream families had consolidated, “instead of infighting and undercutting each other on prices, they might have been a greater force today.” And the wars are not yet over. Earlier this year, police were forced to make an arrest after a fight broke out between two ice cream van men in Leigh.

The ice cream turf wars are first and foremost a symptom, not a cause, of a struggling industry. The history of the humble British ice cream van is a success story of multiculturalism tragically quashed by the unrelenting power of capitalism. Commercial vans began to take over from the Italian independent vendors and now home freezing and supermarkets have meant that ice cream can be cheaply and easily consumed in the home. Ice cream has developed new cultural capital – images of Bridget Jones wrapped up in a duvet guzzling Ben and Jerry’s spring to mind – so, while at one time the vans were our sole means of procuring ice cream, now they have been rendered mere novelty.

Rising food and petrol prices and government legislation have also played their part in the industry’s decline. Councils enforce pedantic limits on where people can trade and for how long vans can sound their chimes, and the charge for a van operator’s licence is ever-increasing. The 20,000 vans which once brightened our streets in the mid-20th century have now dwindled to a current total of fewer than 5,000, following in the footsteps of the ice cream van’s sister vehicle, the milk float.

In a BBC radio broadcast in 2011, comedian Johnny Vegas expressed his appreciation for the endangered ice cream van: “Without sounding too dramatic, you don’t want to live in a world where there isn’t ice cream vans at the end of the day. It would be a shame. There’d be a tremendous guilt in me if they were gone. You know, if you suddenly realise that they’re gone for good while you’re sat there staring at a freezer, thinking, ‘I could have done more’, chucking the supermarket stuff out into the street and […] crying for the demise of a Mr Whippy.”

But the ice cream van in Manchester is not yet dead. In fact, Claire Kelsey’s ice cream van, Ginger’s Comfort Emporium, selling mainly in and around Manchester, has won several accolades in the British Street Food Awards. Kelsey is keeping the spirit of the Manchester ice cream van alive, whilst also adapting to the jaded palate of a new market with her unusual flavours, including olive oil, black salt and strawberry, blackberry, rosemary and sage, and absinthe. Let’s hope that the alimentary ingenuity of Kelsey and other vendors, such as Oasis Ice Cream in Chorlton and Sivori in Gorton, can keep the industry afloat, and maybe the beloved ice cream van’s brief winter of discontent is set to thaw.

Ella Bucknall