Attending this year’s informative GCCA conference in Cape Town’s Westin Hotel (2nd to 4th August, I pointed out, probably following one beer too many, that the façade of the world’s oldest Commercial Cold Store was a mere 200 meters away.
Sir David Graaff, that unsung hero of Cape Town’s industrial beginnings, arrived in the port city from Villiersdorp in 1870 (aged 11) as an apprentice blockman to his Great uncle Jacobus Combrinck, then one of Cape Town’s foremost butchers.
Not unlike today, it was a time of revolutionary change, with a railway under construction to Kimberley (completed 1885) and thousands of people moving, like Graaf did, from the country to town. Cape Town’s blanket industry was already up and running and required light engineering support. Heavy engineering emerged around the docks to repair the increasingly iron hulled, steam driven ships.
Graaf wasn’t a normal blockman. An avid reader of the Cape Times, he learnt of the 1882 Dunedin experiment, still commemorated annually in New Zealand with National Lamb Day on 18th March. This involved Installing a cold box on the sail powered freighter Dunedin, with refrigeration supplied by a steam powered plant. The Dunedin reached London 98 days later without the cargo rotting. Becalmed at the equator, poor air circulation within the insulated box was observed and the captain crawled in to create more air holes. Losing consciousness from hypothermia/lack of oxygen he was dragged out by a safety rope and happily resuscitated.
Industrializing European cities required meat. Local sources couldn’t cope with demand, so prices surged. If meat could be sourced competitively from colonies as far away as Australia, there would also be a huge new market for South African lamb, mutton, and beef. The Dunedin cargo, after offloading in London’s Tilbury docks was consumed by brave souls at a public event. When the guests remained in good health, the global trade in commercially refrigerated food began.
Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company was founded by Graaff and his brother Jacobus in 1899.
David Graaf, sensing the significance of the event, undertook a global study tour before building the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply facility in Dock Road, Cape town. The refrigeration equipment was installed by nearby Gearing Bros and the first cold store chambers constructed below sea level, Insulated with cork. Rail tracks ran in a gangway between the chambers accommodating a trolley to move carcasses which were then hand packed. ICS became one of the largest global suppliers of frozen meat until the 1930’s.
Now, only a façade remains……