Eben meets Sir David

23 September 2014

De Grendel 1

This morning I had an unusual privilege to spend an hour with Sir David, the 74-year-old grandson of Sir David de Villiers Graaff who created the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Ltd.  The meeting took place on their wine farm, De Grendel in Milnerton.

Sir David

The magnitude of the moment did not escape me.

The Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Ltd

Before me was the man whose grandfather created one of the largest food groups in South African history and one of the largest in the world, the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Ltd. His grandfather brought refrigeration to South Africa in the 1880s when he erected cold storage rooms for his butchery business, Combrinck & Co. and later set up cold storage facilities across Southern Africa.

The Treaty of Versailles

His grandfather was present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles of 28 June 1919, at the end of World War I.

During the meeting, Sir David recounted the story (no doubt told him by his grandmother) when his grandfather, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha attended the signing of the treaty.  The South Africans initially refused to sign.  The day before the ceremony, Smuts and David’s wife (Sir Davids grandmother) were together in a car touring an area to the north of Versailles.  Rows upon rows of crosses in the fields greeted them, marking graves of fallen men on both sides of the road.

Smuts touched David’s wife on the leg and said to her, “Tomorrow I will sign away the lives of the second generation.”

Sir David explained how it was clear to the South African delegation that contained in the pages of this treaty were the seeds of war that would germinate and become WWII.  Dominated by larger world powers, the next day, they signed the treaty.

The dominee’s daughter

Sir David never knew his grandfather who married when he was in his mid 50’s.  He was the Lead Elder (Hoof Ouderling) at the Groote Kerk, next to the buildings of Parliament in Cape Town.    His eye caught a young girl, in her mid 20’s.  She happened to be the dominee’s (pastor’s) daughter.  They married.  Sir David’s dad was born from this marriage.

The Imperial is burning

An impressive cold storage facility was built at new premises in Dock Road in the late 1890s.  World-class!   It became the Head Office of the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company which was listed and incorporated in 1899.

Sir David tells the story when his grandfather was at his beach house in Muizenburg, how the guard phoned him one night exclaiming, “The Imperial is burning!  The Imperial is burning!”

His grandfather asked him if he had notified the hoofbestuurder (general manager).  From his beach house, he could add little value to the crisis.

It turned out to be an electrical fault.  A new building was constructed that remained its Head Office till the company formally ceased to exist in October 1998 when Tiger Brands bought it and assimilated the group into its own operations.


In the story about bacon and the art of living, I set the real historical facts of the creation and existence of Sir David’s Grandfathers company against the real-life birth and existence of Woodys Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd, in the late 2010s and early 2020s.

Woodys was in the first place created as a bacon processor even though it has branched into a wide variety of processed products.  In the story, Woody’s is set up to supply its produce to passing ships and to the South African population through Sir Davids grandfathers company.

I also track the development of bacon as we know it today through its absorbing historical roots that span the globe and the engaging and technical science behind bacon processing.

The phenomenal success of the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Co Ltd

I asked Sir David about the unusual success of his grandfather’s company.  Sir David pointed to two events that precipitated the companies rise to dominance.   The one was the outbreak of rinderpest in the 1890s.  This epidemic almost completely wiped out all the South African herds.  Sir Davids grandfather imported meat from Australia, Argentina and other locations and supplied it across the region.  His company with its cold storage facility’s was perfectly positioned to step into the void and supply imported meat.

The second event was the outbreak of the second Anglo Boer war when more English soldiers come to South Africa to fight than the total white population of the country.  Imperial Cold Storage won the contract to supply the British armed forces with meat.


I asked about Paarden Island since I was told that it used to belong to his grandfather.   Sir David tells me about its creation, now a well known industrial site to the North of Cape Town.  When his grandfather was mayor, cleaning up the city was a major priority.  He erected sewerage works throughout the city.  Paarden Island was a marsh and lacking the modern-day understanding of these ecologically sensitive areas, it was identified as a dumping site.

Sir Davids grandfather also tendered and won the tender.  Paarden Island was filled out by city refuge.

Arabian Horses from Argentina and the farm De Grendel

Sir David tells the story of Arabian horses that his father bought on a visit to Argentina (a major supplier of beef in the 1890’s and till today).  The horses were first kept in Newlands.  Capetonian’s will tell you that the Newlands rugby field is the wettest patch of grass in the country.  The horses had to be moved to a drier location.

Sir Davids grandfather undertook a trip by ox wagon to Muizenburg.  Arriving, the South Easter was blowing and the beach was filled with blue bottles and smelly seagrass.  His grandfather immediately turned north and arrived at the farm, presently known as De Grendel.  He loved the site and bought it to house his horses.

It was at De Grendel that the meeting with Sir David took place.




De Grendel 2

de Grendel 4

A butcher’s questions:  I asked Sir David about his grandfather’s health and the condition of his hands.  In the popular 1906 novel by  Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), Sinclair tells a fictional story about immigrants to the US that plays itself off in the Chicago meat district (packing plants that Sir Davids grandfather no doubt visited on his many trips to Chicago and where he probably looked at early refrigeration plants).  He gives vivid accounts of child labour and the conditions in the meatpacking plants of the late 1890s.  His grandfather started working at Combrinck & Co when he was only 11.

There was no story told to Sir David about his grandfather having any of the signs of the butchery trade that Sinclair described in his novel, The Jungle.

As I suspected, Sinclair’s novel is an exaggeration at best.  Just last week I met Oom Hennie de Lange, now in his 70’s, who had also worked from age 13 in a butchery in the Eastern Cape, also having all 10 his fingers and the full use of both his thumbs.

Sir Davids grandfather also did not suffer from back or neck problems, commonly associated with people who work in the butchery trade, even in recent years.  This tells me that the conditions at Combrinck & Co were well managed and carefully controlled.

What about the mountain?  We love Table Mountain and spend as much time there as possible.  I have a theory that Sir Davids grandfather also spend some time hiking on it.

Sir David had no story about this.  A noteworthy story he recalls is not about his grandfather, but about Jan Smuts.  When the British royal family visited the Cape, Jan Smuts took them on a hike up the mountain.

Interesting quote:   Sir David gave me this quote from his grandfather:  “The two biggest skelms (dishonest scoundrels) are Rhodes and Paul Kruger!”

Myths expelled:  The De Graaff trust have no shares in Tiger Brands and the Renown brand, created by ICS.  The family sold their interest after the depression of the ’30s.

Unresolved matters:  Sir David had no information about the present-day location of the original Combrinck & Co in Woodstock or the Woodstock house of Jacobus Combrink where he lived with the Graaff brothers and a sister and where he passed away in 1891.

Many other:  During this mesmerizing and fascinating meeting, Sir David had many more stories.  About the second World War and his father  Amazing family stories and anecdotes.  About his own term in politics and serving under FW de Klerk.  His eventual retirement from politics in 1998 to assist his ailing father on his farm till his eventual passing in 1999.

Sir David is a fascinating person. I am deeply honoured to have met him.

Roy Oliver, the production manager of Woodys Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. has worked for one of the ICL companies earlier in his life at South West Africa Cold Storage.  He was employed by Nico Retief, one of the ICL directors and worked for him between 1980 and 1987.   We are developing a range of dry-cured bacon, along the lines that it must have been done during the time of Sir David’s grandfather.

I presented him with two packages of our most recent production.

I hope to be back for another meeting and to possibly give him an update on our bacon development.

De Grendel 1


(c) eben van tonder

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Figure 1:  http://www.degrendel.co.za/gallery/nggallery/de-grendel-wines/estate

Figure 2:  Eben van Tonder of Sir David

Figure 3:  Simons, PB. 2000.  Ice Cold in Africa.  Fernwood Press.

Figure 4 – 17:  Eben van Tonder, ICS Building

Figure  18 – 20:  Eben van Tonder, De Grendel

Figure 21 – 23:  http://www.degrendel.co.za/gallery/nggallery/de-grendel-wines/estate


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