The first consignment of export fruit from South Africa left Cape Town in 1889 but it arrived in Britain in an inferior condition and had to be destroyed. Three years later, the first successful shipment of South African export fruit arrived in the UK in good condition. The ship that carried this fruit had a specially-fitted space that could be cooled to preserve the fruit during the long ocean voyage. This was the start of the export of South African fruit and a number of ships were equipped with these special refrigeration spaces to keep the fruit cool for long voyages.
In 1935, a specially-fitted ship, Roslin Castle, was the first fully-refrigerated ship to arrive in Cape Town to start the export of bulk refrigerated fruit. Her holds could be cooled to the best temperature to keep a particular type of fruit cool, and they could even be cooled to below freezing so that she could carry frozen meat or fish.
In time, hundreds of refrigerated ships (known as reefer ships or reefers) were in service to carry fruit, meat, fish and other commodities that needed to be kept cool or even frozen during a voyage. Australia and New Zealand also became large exporters of fruit and meat to Britain and Europe. Argentina developed a large trade in frozen meat.
Most of the world’s refrigerated cargoes are now shipped in refrigerated containers (reefer containers).
Refrigerated Ships Slide 1of 5
Rochester Castle, one of the refrigerated ships that used to call regularly in South African ports to load fruit. Photograph: Brian Ingpen/George Young Collection
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S.A. Langkloof, one of the South African ships that used to carry export fruit from South Africa. Photograph: Brian Ingpen/George Young Collection
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Oranges about to be loaded into a refrigerated ship in Durban in 1973. The boxes of oranges are on a wooden board which is called a pallet. Photograph: Brian Ingpen
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Refrigerated ships in Port Elizabeth. Deciduous fruit (e.g. apples, plums) is grown in the Langkloof area and Gamtoos River valley; citrus fruit (e.g. oranges, lemons, grapefruit) comes from the Great Fish River and Kat River valleys. Photograph: Brian Ingpen
Refrigerated Ships Slide 5 of 5
Refrigerated containers awaiting loading onto a containership in Cape Town. Photograph: Brian Ingpen