Our History

“Burmeister & CO was said to have been established in 1895, but in fact, it had its real origins even before that time.

My grandfather, Paul Frenz Diedrich Burmeister, was born on February 10, 1865, the son of hotel owner Johann Carl Christian Burmeister (born 17/12/1827, died 13/6/1895) in Heide, Holstein, Northern Germany. His early business training was at a bank in London where he also learnt English.

Before Willie Burmeister, my father, died in 1985, he made some notes of our family history and I quote from them as follows: “During the second half of the nineteenth century, many young Germans, probably urged by the generally-speaking poor financial circumstances prevailing in Germany at that time, and others with a spirit of adventure, became interested in emigrating to other countries.

My father continued: “My father’s brother Carl, emigrated to North America and settled in San Francisco. His brother Wilhelm, came to South Africa and was manager of one of the businesses opened in the Border area by Carl Malcomess and Company in King William’s Town. My father also wished to emigrate to South Africa, but was urged by his parents not to take this step unless their son, Wilhelm, returned to Germany.

“My grandfather, Paul Burmeister arrived in South Africa on April 20, 1892 and it is surmised that he spent some time in the Border area where he met Emilie Katherina Grunow (born 23/9/1864, died 6/3/1937). He then travelled to Johannesburg where “P.BURMEISTER & CO” was founded in 1895. This firm advertised itself as “Tobacco Merchants & Commission Agents” and “Dealers in riems, sjamboks, whips, curios, horns, leather, karosses, etc.” with “Speciality: Transvaal Tobacco Real Magaliesberg”.

The business was situated on the corner of Market & Sauer Streets – where or opposite the present Africana Library is now situated.

He travelled to the Cape and married Emilie in Stutterheim on November 26, 1896, the marriage register giving his address as “Johannesburg S.A.R.” (South African Republic). Emilie Grunow was the eldest daughter of Julius Grunow’s four daughters. Julius Grunow (born 1837, died 1905) was in turn the eldest of the nine children of Ernst Grunow (50) who arrived in East London with his wife Henrietta (44) and other German settlers aboard the “La Rochelle” on August 28, 1858. Ernst Grunow’s occupation was given as being a “Miller” and the smaller of the two mills at Stutterheim, that on the Cumakala river belonged to his family.

As the Boer war loomed, my grandfather, fearing for his expectant wife and with business prospects looking bleak, left the Transvaal in a hurry! I quote again from my father who said that his father “caught the very last train leaving Johannesburg” when he abandoned his business and the dwelling home which he owned” He and his wife “fled Johannesburg en-route for Stutterheim which was the home of Emilie Katherina Grunow before her marriage. She was a qualified music teacher and the daughter of Julius Grunow.

Julius Grunow owned a farm on the outskirts of Stutterheim on which, apart from agricultural lands and a large orchard, there was a grain mill (powered by water) for producing meal from wheat, maize, etc. He was a Field Coronet in charge of a detachment of men in the several Frontier Wars which occurred from time to time in those days.” According to my Uncle Paul van Gent, husband of my dad’s sister Erna, my grandfather used to remark that all he could take with him when he left Johannesburg were eight bags of tobacco! Present information is not clear as to what cash resources my grandfather had when he arrived in Stutterheim. However, he acquired the larger mill on the Kubusie waterfurrow from a certain Mr John Irvine. He was possibly helped financially by his mother in Germany or by his father in-law, Julius Grunow.
Mr Alec Grunow, presently living in Stutterheim, states that “Only the small mill closer to Stutterheim was owned by Julius Grunow”.

The following letters will explain some more about the mill: Letter August 19,1975 – From Mr Jack H.French, Vice Chairman, Kaffrarian Historical Society to Burmeister & Company (Pty) Limited.

Letter in reply September 16, 1975 – Burmeister & Company (Pty) LTD per Mr. W.A.Burmeister.

You will note from the last paragraph of the letter that the mill was burnt down “approximately in 1920” and this event appears to have been quite controversial at the time. According to my Aunt Erna and Uncle Fred Burmeister, the story is as follows: “At that time it was common for the Xhosa employees living on the farm area around the mill to own cattle and these cattle were allowed to graze alongside those of Mr P.F.D.Burmeister. During a drought the grazing was badly depleted and Mr Burmeister found it necessary to hire grazing from a farm in the Amabele area. Some of the cattle from Burmeister’s farm, including those of his employee, were sent to graze at this farm.

Unfortunately, due to their poor condition, some of Burmeister’s and the employee’s cattle died. The employee went to Mr Burmeister and demanded compensation since “he had not asked permission to send his (the employee’s) cattle to this hired land and he was therefore responsible for their death.” Mr P.F.D. Burmeister refused to pay the “large compensation” demanded and said that he too had lost some cattle. Whilst arguments concerning this matter continued, the mill was burnt down. The arsonist was thought to be the employee “James”, who was observed by Mr Adolf Frache’t sitting on his white blanket on a hill overlooking the mill whilst it burnt down. The mill, being inadequately insured, was not rebuilt.” 
Another version is that by Mr Alec Grunow who tells that during the years of the first world war, the anti-German sentiment in the area ran quite high. Someone then burnt down this mill that belonged to a German family. The joke was, he said, that the Burmeisters had insured the mill with a British insurance company who then had to pay them out! I think the above tale aptly illustrates why my grandfather used to fly the Union Jack above his store!

Burmeisters’ 11/13 Cambridge Street, East London premises decked out for the English Royal Visit in 1947. If you had a “German sounding name” just after WWII, nothing was too much trouble!

The Mill at Kubusie, Stutterheim, circa 1910.

Mr Paul Frenz Diedrich, the founder of Burmeisters, in front of his shop in Johannesburg, 1895.

Outside their Kubusie home: Mr PFD Burmeister, Emily Burmeisters with sons Paul, Wilhem & Friedrich and daughter Erna, in the 1920s..

January 1979: The start of manufacturing of Chainlink (diamond mesh) fencing in the basement of No.11 Cambridge Street. Later, also barbed wire manufactured. Watch this space for more details, when time permits.
In November 1991 the business moved from its position on the corner of Fleet and Cambridge Streets to its then new 10,000 square metre site on the corner of Fleet and Signal Streets just a few hundred metres away. The new site had an existing railways building on it and to this more storage space and offices were added. The land was owned by the Railways and after 3 years of negotiations a 50 year lease was obtained. In about 1995 application was made to buy the premises and eventually on 25 November 1998 transfer of the property was taken. At present the total area under cover is 3,500 square metres. Plentiful customer parking is provided. Esme’ Schultz and Olga Lombard have since passed away.