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!

My father thought that the most likely version was that of arson by the employee, but that the insurance company repudiated liability by claiming “Spontaneous Combustion” since this was an exclusion in the policy. 
I think this because, during the time that I worked in the business with both my father and my Uncle Friedie, both always emphasized that our insurance policy had to have a “Spontaneous Combustion” clause since they had been “caught” before.

However, prior to its burning down, the mill was the catalyst for the resuscitated Burmeister & Co.
I quote again from my father’s memoirs: “The Farmers’ Weekly was established in 1911. I can still recollect being anxious to develop a “mail order business” so as not to be dependent entirely on the revenue produced by the mill (in respect of revenue received by the grinding of wheat & maize brought by farmers in the adjoining areas).

The “Farmers Weekly” had at that time been established and it had a large circulation among the farmers throughout the country and my father (i.e. My grandfather) decided to insert advertisements in respect of the goods he stocked and he thereby increased the turnover of his business considerably.

He also established a General Dealers Store near the mill. Farmers bringing their corn to the mill to be ground to meal were able to obtain their requirements from his store.” When at Kubusie, Burmeisters operated quite extensively in buying wattle bark from suppliers who obtained same from the areas adjoining the Kologha Forest, Stutterheim. This bark was first milled and tanneries were supplied directly. Also some firms in Johannesburg acted as middle-men in supplying the Transvaal tanneries. These middle-men often took advantage of my grandfather knowing full well that he could not investigate most complaints by travelling to Johannesburg personally on each occasion.

In those days absolutely everything was imported – even clothes! According to Willie Burmeister, this is how the Burmeister family clothed themselves: “When our parents and we children required clothing, these were imported from England – after our parents had duly completed the “order form” by giving our measurements.
We also at times had suits made for us by local tailors in East London, but such were very expensive and sometimes ill-fitting.

N.B. Ready-made suits of good quality (as now generally purchased) came from overseas and were avoided.” Going back to the nature of the business: Goods were imported from all over the world, but mainly through W.C.BURMEISTER & CO who were established as export agents and liquor merchants in Hamburg, Germany and which business was established by brother Wilhelm on August 10, 1896.

The mail order business flourished and through the medium of the Farmers’ Weekly, Burmeisters became a household name in the farming community as far away as South West Africa, the Transvaal and even Rhodesia. The store was on a railway siding and goods were imported through East London and railed to Kubusie for further distribution – by ox-wagon and by train.

During these early days it was necessary to educate the four Burmeister children and, since there were no schools in the area, Mr P.F.D.Burmeister applied to the Department of Education for permission to start a “farm school”. Permission was granted and it meant that board and lodging had to be provided for the tutor chosen. Very often they were unlucky in appointing a suitable person and the procedure of advertising the vacancy had to be repeated. It was only after an advertisement was placed in “The Times” of London that matters were settled.

A certain Mr J.Constantine was appointed to the position and through his skills the young family as well as the local railway employees’ children received their primary education. The number of pupils at the school, situated next to the mill, was approximately 42. Even now when speaking to my Aunt Erna, I can hear the esteem in which “Consty” was held. The wide range of learning imparted to his pupils was invaluable and the Burmeister children, whose home language was German, learnt their English language from him. Upon his death it was learnt that he was in fact a medical doctor who had decided to leave England due to a personal scandal. It would indeed be very interesting to learn more about this inspirational character about whom nothing else is known.

After matriculating at Selborne College, my dad worked for the Department of Justice in King William’s Town where he studied privately for, and obtained, his “Attorneys Law Certificate”. He owned a BSA motorbike and at weekends he might ride home to Kubusie with a friend on the luggage carrier.

Friedie Burmeister also matriculated at Selborne and then entered the Wool trade to gain some experience before he too joined the family business.

At this time it was realised that Kubusie, whilst necessary for customers who called with grain to be milled, was not a good area for the carrying on of a General Dealer’s business. Consideration was given to opening up a store in Stutterheim, but it was often heard in conversation “That East London had a future”.

My father writes: “This prompted my father, who was importing practically everything required for his business from overseas (and when I had decided to return from the Civil Service) my father decided to send me down to East London to act in clearing goods through the customs, and thus I saw the expenses the firm incurred by having goods cleared by Landing and Clearing Agents.” Willie Burmeister continues: “I remember well when my father later was impressed when he heard that a certain firm in East London, at a later stage, had begun manufacturing sweets – which was one of the many items we had always hitherto imported from England.” (Wilson’s Sweets) “After I had decided to join my fathers business, it was decided that there was not sufficient scope for our carrying on with, or enlarging upon, our business at Kubusie and that I should go to East London to clear our goods through the customs and I opened a business in East London. We had an office and store, served with a railway siding, at the far end of Commercial Road (the site is now occupied by Venetian Blinds, 1 Panmure Place in about 1932). My dad, Willie, continues: “Later we sold the above-mentioned and purchased a much larger store, also with a railway siding, (somewhat lower down – in the direction of the sea and later broken down and built upon). There we carried a comprehensive stock of fencing materials and other farmers’ requisites. We had two trucks for delivering goods to local customers.

At the same time we also had an office and a smaller store in Caxton Street which we purchased from Mr Cunningham. (who was employed by Baker, King and Co) on the site where C.P.Perks and Son now have their newly built premises.
The intention of the business was to serve local East London clients and from where we also conducted a mail order business.” “We then on 10/07/39 purchased the building 11/13 Cambridge Street – which the firm now occupies – from Mr Oakshott who was a wool buyer and the purchase price was in British Sterling 8236” Thus ends my dad’s quotation.
In 1935, attorney and eldest son, Paul Burmeister drew up a DEED OF PARTNERSHIP between the founder and his two sons who were active in the business – Willie and Friedie. This agreement effectively divided up the assets of the business between the 3 active partners as well as determined salaries, profit sharing and interest on loan accounts.

Hard times were experienced during the war years since imports were severely curtailed and as petrol was rationed and the lorry drivers were called up for active service, the lorries were sold and delivery was discontinued.

Olga Lombard, who joined the business in 1940 and who is still employed by Burmeisters and Esme’ Schultz, since retired, remember, and I quote: “In those days imported corrugated iron was sold for 1 1/4 Pence per foot on account and 1 Penny for cash. Brooders and incubators were stored in the basement of Unsworths building in Oxford Street a little higher up and opposite the Post Office. We also dealt in horse feed, cattle feed, etc.

During the war years the shop closed every Wednesday afternoon and we girls had to go to lectures given by the Red Cross in bandaging etc.

We had no office equipment except a typewriter and a franking machine.

The first machine purchased was a machine for “kicking off” tickets used for the railing of goods.” (This machine still exists in our store) “Joseph, our messenger, went to the siding delivering tickets several times a day.

We were paid 5 Pounds per month and a bus season ticket cost 7/6 per month for as many rides per day as one wished.
“We all had intercoms at our desks. We were not allowed to shout and ask questions – intercoms had to be used!” A Barkly East farmer once wrote: “Geagte Meneer Burmeister, skaam jy nie dat jy nege pence vir ‘n paar Drummer Boy skaapskere vra wanneer ek net een pence per pond vir my wol kan kry!?” (Dear Mr Burmeister, aren’t you ashamed that you can charge nine pence for a pair of Drummer Boy sheep shears when I can get only one pence per pound for my wool!?”) Olga and Esme’ continue with their anecdotes: “During the war an Italian ship carrying students was captured. These students were housed for about 2 years in the railway buildings across from us in Fleet Street which we then nicknamed “Vichiville”. Every lunchtime delicious food aromas wafted across the street caused severe hunger pangs to us girls.” In 1945, Mr P.F.D.Burmeister now being 80 years old, the partnership agreement was changed so that the founder “shall be at liberty to devote as much or as little of his time to the business of the partnership as he may choose, and notwithstanding the fact that he may devote only a little of his time or none of his time to the business of the partnership he shall nevertheless be entitled to his full rights in terms of the said Deed Of Partnership and shall continue to receive full profits as set out in clause 6 thereof.” Six years later, in 1951, the founder, Mr Paul Frenz Diedrich Burmeister, passed away at 6 St. Andrew’s Road, East London.

In October 1953, Max Schulpfort, previously of Whiting & Griffin, the firms auditors, joined the business. Soon after he joined, import control was brought in and and goods could only be imported after obtaining the required import permit. This was to force South Africans to buy from the state monopoly, ISCOR. The livelihood of importers was thus entirely dependant upon the size of the import permit and allocation of stock received from ISCOR itself.

No doubt much skulduggery between Transvaalers and the closeby government departments occurred and trips had to be made to Pretoria in order to plead for a larger permit allocation for Burmeisters who were relatively “on the other side of the world.” Once sufficient permit was obtained, goods were readily sold and goods would be “booked” by dealer customers and co-operatives prior to their arrival in East London. Prices charged were governed by Price Control and in most cases a maximum profit margin of only 10% could be added to the landed cost of the goods. However, stock turn was good and an average stock turn of ten times a year was common. Later, by means of taxpayer subsidy via the government, Wholesale Co-operatives were formed to serve the retail co operatives. Thus, at the expense of the man in the street, this business was gradually taken away from the Private Sector and placed in the hands of persons more likely to vote for the Nationalist Farmer’s Government.

This was the trend up until 1961, which with the advent of the Sharpeville Riots was a watershed year.
After Sharpeville, the value of our currency plunged, import control was increased and an active policy of import substitution was followed.

The few steel and wire goods previously imported could now only be purchased through State-owned ISCOR. Purchases were by allocation and orders had to be placed 4 to 6 months ahead. Of course, companies on the Reef, who being closer to ISCOR were more able to influence their purchase allocation and who also had a transport benefit had an advantage over Burmeisters – who were situated away from the main markets and on the coast. However, a good line of business for the company was Scotch Up-To-Date Seed Potatoes. Since there were no agricultural cooling sheds, the discrepancy in seasons was used to import seed potatoes from the Northern hemisphere to South Africa in time for the planting season. Orders were thus received from all over South Africa and South West Africa. Later, the subsidized Co-ops built cooling sheds.

Another speciality was Beehives & Accessories and how Burmeisters went into that business is told by my father: “During the 1914/18 war all German nationals were interned. Later it was advertised that approved internees would be released against suitable applications from S.A. Citizens who could give them employment.” In this connection a man by the name of “Boots” Fischer was appointed and he worked in the business.

“He had experience in Germany and it happened that he was very competent with beekeeping and also knew the sources of supply. It was through him that we started our Beehives and Accessories Department, obtaining supplies from England and America. Our Beehives and Accessories Department in which our firm specialises probably carries a larger range of items than stocked by any other firm in the country.” With the advent of the Company’s Act, the Burmeister partnership was converted into a Private Company in 1951. Through the 1960’s the Company’s business became more and more localised. Since both directors were now in their 60’s, the trend was rather to scale down the business than to seek new markets or new lines.”

Burmeisters Cambridge Street 1947

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!

Burmeisters Cambridge Street 1947

The Mill at Kubusie, Stutterheim, circa 1910.

Burmeisters Cambridge Street 1947

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

Burmeisters Cambridge Street 1947

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.