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Heinrich Meise
& Conrad Selzer

A tale of two butchers

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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Two men living in different parts of Germany -- one in Gottingen, the other in Marburg -- responded in July 1855 to a call to enlist in the British German Legion. They were Heinrich Meise and Conrad Selzer.

Both were 26 years of age. Both were butchers. Each stole separately across Germany to a rendezvous at Heligoland and, from there, each was transferred to a military camp where he was trained for combat.

Heinrich Meise was 5 feet 6 inches tall, with hair that was described as "light" in colour. He was posted as a private in the 1st Jagers, an infantry regiment. Conrad Selzer was assigned as a private in the 2nd Regiment of Light Infantry.

Just as each was gearing up to do battle, however, the war ended. The two soldiers could no longer return to Germany without the danger of being arrested and imprisoned for treason since both had taken an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria.

They therefore signed up to become part of the military settlement in British Kaffraria and sailed in November 1856 from Portsmouth to East London. From there they were route-marched for three days to Fort Murray where they would remain for more than three months.

Both men were eventually placed in the 1st Regiment and both were assigned to the village of Panmure -- a village across the Buffalo River from East London -- which had its advantages as well as its disadvantages.

The major disadvantage was that the military settlers there were given a building lot plus just one acre of land as a "garden plot", whereas those at the inland villages were given five acres of land each.

The reason for this difference was that the inland villages were mostly isolated and away from any possibility of the men finding employment. They were therefore expected to eke out a living as farmers on what are now termed "small holdings".

Those settlers who were located near East London and King William's Town were to be treated differently because there were labouring jobs close at hand and so they would not have to make a living as farmers. The land was also regarded as more valuable.

Both Meise and Selzer were granted their acre plots just north of the village of Panmure, in what has today become the East London suburbs of North End and Southernwood. Each man then quickly realised that there was money to be had in returning to their former butcher's trade.

Indeed, a quick glance at the growing English community of East London reveals that there were several merchants living there but no butchers. Since that village was very close by -- in fact, just over the river -- a business was theirs for the taking.

It was easy to live in Panmure and conduct a butcher's trade at East London. Butchers in those days did not operate out of shops. They had no refrigeration to keep their meat cool and so it was essential to move quickly from the shambles to the customer's house.

The two men established a common shambles for slaughtering the animals, choosing the rocky shoreline right alongside the town. The Resident Magistrate's only instruction to the butchers was that they had to slaughter and dissect the animals below the high water mark.

They used the local cemetery alongside the rocky shore as a place to corral their animals prior to slaughter, which meant that the rocks immediately below the cemetery promptly became their established shambles.

Of course, both butchers were still members of the 1st Regiment and therefore had to parade at church services once a week in full military dress. This was obviously an irksome event for two men who were slowly establishing businesses which required their constant attention.

As a result, both would periodically skip the religious parade, and a glance at their military records shows that each was incarcerated on several occasions for doing so.

When their military settler contract period of three years ended, both men were still living at Panmure. The Governor then decided to stagger the discharge period so as not to lose too many soldiers at any one time.

It was for this reason that Conrad Selzer received his discharge -- and title to his land -- in April 1860 while Heinrich Meise remained under contract till March 1861. Indeed, the extra year provided him with some useful pocket money.

The two men had learned to work well together. Their initial market at East London was large enough to support two butchers but it was far too small to consume great amounts of meat at any one time.

When a biggish beast -- such as an ox -- was to be killed, Meise and Selzer combined to buy the animal, and then each shared the task of slaughtering and cutting it up -- and the meat was then divided between them.

The town made rapid progress after 1868 when diamonds were discovered in what became known as Griqualand West. East London was found to be the nearest port to Kimberley and so trade through the harbour began to escalate. With it came increasing markets.

The Cape was soon awash with money and began looking for useful public works on which to spend it. East London saw two projects get under way after 1872: the creation of a viable river harbour and the building of a railway line to Queenstown.

The railway terminus was placed at Panmure so as to avoid the cost of constructing a bridge across the Buffalo River. This caused the land at Panmure to escalate rapidly in value. Both butchers would now be wealthy -- at least in a theoretical sense.

Because the railway terminus was at Panmure, it also made sense for East London's men of business to migrate there. Panmure therefore quickly became the commercial heart of the port, while the original settlement on the West Bank degenerated into a backwater hamlet.

The two butchers had by now each become a name in East London, but the mushrooming municipality -- created in May 1873 -- was too big for them to continue to operate from their shambles on the western shoreline.

Meise's first butcher shop was in Union Street, although he later moved to Oxford Street. Their animals would be slaughtered at a properly demarcated shambles close to the Blind River, at a spot near where the Buffalo Park cricket stadium is now located.

Heinrich Meise became known as a quiet and unostentatious man who went out of his way to be of service. One customer on the West Bank spoke of her memories of how he would visit her mother with his cordial greeting of, "Anything wanted today Mrs. L.?"

His scales and scroll book were under his arm, she said, and two labourers accompanied him, each carrying a sheep carcass over his back. The leg of mutton was cut off, weighed, and entered in the book -- and then off he went to the next customer.

Conrad Selzer diversified and was soon the owner of a hotel, a canteen and a general dealer's store in Cambridge. With success on his side, he even turned his attention to municipal politics where he was elected to represent Ward 3.

Very soon thereafter he decided to leave East London and move to the diamond town of Kimberley where massive fortunes were to be made or lost. There he would die in September 1903. He was then 74 years old.

Meise, on the other hand, remained at East London and would become known as one of the fathers of the town. He died there in November 1910 at the grand age of 81.

Meise's Halt, a small rural community near East London -- consisting of just an hotel and a trading store -- would take its name from him.

[Extract from: Keith Tankard's Broken Promises]

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