In 1897, the arrival in Table Bay of South Africa’s first trawler, Pieter Faure, aroused great interest. The little steam trawler was to undertake a comprehensive survey of marine resources of the Cape and report to the colony’s administrators about currents, temperatures, the nature of the sea bed and a number of other aspects. It also trawled the beds and brought in so many soles that they were sold for 'a penny a pair' at the market.
Richard Irvin was a pioneer of steam-driven trawling with substantial fishing interests in England and Scotland. He sent his son, George, to South Africa in 1902, to see whether the stories he had heard of Pieter Faure’s discoveries were true. On his return to England, George delivered his detailed report to his father who was so impressed that he immediately commissioned the construction of three trawlers for use at the Cape of Good Hope, and registered a new company, the African Fishing & Trading Company Ltd.
Star of the South and Star of Peace, two fine new trawlers built in North Shields for the African Fishing & Trading Company, arrived at the Cape Town docks just before Christmas in 1903. Before too long, Star of Isles and Star of the East joined their sister ships and began disgorging hundreds of tons of fish into the newly-developed fishing section of Cape Town docks. Trawling had finally become a real industry in South Africa.
Among those who watched the arrival of the new trawlers at Cape Town docks with interest was Carl Ossian Johnson, a tough Swede who had recently purchased a trawler of his own, the diminutive Berea, built by J. S. Svensen at Gothenburg in 1902, which he sent to Cape Town. A few months later, Carl Johnson reassigned the Berea to fish in Durban’s waters.
The labour shortage which occurred after the South African War forced the gold mines on the Witwatersrand to introduce 50 000 Chinese labourers who were fish eaters. Although the mines wanted fish for rations, the consignments which arrived via South Africa’s independent railway systems were often putrid and inedible. So Central Fisheries (who held lucrative contracts with the mines) approached the railways and suggested attaching three purpose-built, 40-ton trucks to the letter train for the conveyance of fish. Inevitably, it entered into contracts with both the African Fishing & Trading Co. Ltd. and Carl Johnson, and it was then that George Irvin and Carl Johnson came into contact for the first time.
In 1907, Carl Johnson anglicised his name, changing it to "Charles Ocean Johnson".
With Charles Johnson’s knowledge of fishing conditions and George Irvin’s technical and financial resources, their collaboration soon became a partnership. From London, Richard Irvin gave his blessing to the partnership and on 16 November 1910, George Irvin and Charles Johnson signed a contract which led to the founding of Irvin & Johnson, complete with a fleet of four trawlers, a cold store and a smokery.
During the First World War, imports dropped, fewer ships called at South African ports and higher duties were imposed, leading to a substantial increase in the cost of living. However, fish was recognised as a vital foodstuff and Irvin & Johnson successfully increased the size of its smoke house to meet the demand. In spite of the difficulty of operating in a war time environment, Irvin & Johnson maintained its expansion policy.
In the mid-1920, Irvin & Johnson began experimenting with wireless communications technology. Quentin Bullard, who originally worked for the communications company, Marconi, would become Irvin & Johnson’s first radio engineer. He was a South African pioneer in the field of communications and tested equipment on a number of whaling expeditions. In 1929 he managed to exchange short wave messages between Heard Island, Durban and Norway.
With the declaration of war in September 1939 a large portion of Irvin & Johnson’s fishing fleet was co-opted to help the war effort: five days before hostilities began, the South African Naval Forces commandeered the steam trawler, and in October, two further trawlers were requisitioned as minesweepers. By November, ten of the company’s trawlers were operating as minesweepers, so, in order to maintain the fishing programme, three line fishing boats were equipped with trawling capacity, along with a steam boat which was bought and reconditioned.
On 25 June 1949, Charles Johnson passed away in Cape Town. During the months preceding his death, the board of Irvin & Johnson took a significant step. Control of the whole enterprise passed into the hands of one of the leading mining houses on the Witwatersrand: Anglo-Transvaal Consolidated Investment Company Limited. This change in ownership heralded a radical change in the company’s structure and direction.
Irvin & Johnson began to freeze fresh fish in the early 1950s as a sideline to smoking and canning activities. What started out as a small Maitland factory rapidly outgrew capacity and by 1959 there were three factories dedicated to preparing frozen fish products such as frozen fillets, fish sticks and fish portions. These factories increased their intake from five tons in 1956 to 100 tons in 1961, and at the time they were considered the largest and most impressively equipped plants in the South African frozen foods industry.
A cartoon character called Frikkie, wearing a top hat and carrying a Fred Astaire-style stick takes centre stage in I&J’s Frikkie Fish Sticks campaign. The campaign used colouring-in books, story books and even street parades to persuade a generation of children to eat fish. Frikkie and his mermaid friend, Seabell, became hugely popular as a result. The original fish stick was not coated and it was sold as a rectangular block of plain fish. It was only in later years that the fish stick took on a crumb coating and was re-named the "fish finger".
In 1961, Irvin & Johnson operated a fleet of 54 deep-sea trawlers that landed a catch of over 81 648 tons. A part of this catch was sent to freezing and processing plants while the remainder, crisp and fresh, went through the firm’s 22 depots and branches daily to every part of Southern Africa. The firm was now a key organisation in a vital sector of the national economy, providing employment to some 5 500 staff, and holding assets valued at over R10 million.
By 1962, Irvin & Johnson owned 40 percent of the company Frozen Foods, which sold frozen fruit and vegetables, both in South Africa and overseas. In 1965, as result of merger and acquisitions, Irvin & Johnson opened a new plant in Springs to produce frozen peas and pre-fried potato chips. In Cape Town, the Diep River Factory was modernized and converted to produce frozen peas, beans, broccoli and mixed vegetables.
By 1971, there were only five steam-driven trawlers left in the South African fleet. The modernisation of trawl gear, navigation equipment and also fish preservation techniques had changed the face of the South African fishing industry, but its future was seriously threatened by the arrival of the foreign fleets.
From 1980, I&J expanded its product range with the launch of innovative fish products and the entrance in new frozen categories: chicken and beef. The remarkable investments in food processing technology led to significant increases in sales, and in 1986, I&J frozen vegetable products outsold those of its closest competitor by two to one.
Since 1991, I&J has set aside one percent of its pre-tax profit for external community investment. Over the past 18 years, this has amounted to charitable donations of over R28 million to a wide variety of community initiatives, including The Red Cross Children’s Hospital Trust, The National Sea Rescue Institute, The Peninsula School Feeding Association, The WARMTH Initiative, The Service Dining Rooms, The Two Oceans Aquarium and uShaka Marine World.
In the early 1980s, I&J’s fishing division operated 33 trawlers and employed 2 000 people. The majority of the vessels were wetfish trawlers that preserved their catch on ice, storing up to 455 m3 per voyage. The freezer factory trawlers fished for periods of between 30 and 50 days, returning to port with an average catch of 350 tons each.
Almost immediately after the 1994 elections in South Africa, fishing companies anticipated a link between black economic empowerment (BEE) and the issue of quotas. After 18 months of consultation, the government released the 1997 ‘White Paper on Marine Fisheries Policy’ which called for the fundamental restructuring of the fishing industry. A year later, in May 1998, the Marine Living Resources Act was passed.
After four years of research carried out in conjunction with the University of Cape Town and the Sea Fisheries Research Institute, I&J established a trial abalone farm at Danger Point on the Cape south coast. The experiment was so successful that in 1997, I&J began the commercial farming of abalone at Danger Point and today exports a variety of abalone products around the world.
I&J has been the main sponsor of the Two Oceans Aquarium and has supplied fresh fish to the Two Oceans Aquarium since the popular tourist attraction opened its doors on 13 November 1995 – feeding approximately 3000 individual animals with two tons of pilchards, hake, squid and mackerel delivered every month. I&J also sponsors a number of environmental educational programmes instilling in our youth the vital importance of protecting our rich ocean resources and respecting biodiversity to ensure a sustainable legacy for the future.
When it became apparent that seabirds were accidentally being injured or killed when they collide with trawl warps, I&J, as a responsible fishing company, was quick to work with ornithologists, fisheries, scientists and conservation organisations to find a solution to the problem. I&J changed its fishing practices to reduce accidental seabird deaths and raise awareness of the threats facing seabirds. Today, the hake trawl fishery in South Africa has reduced albatross deaths by 99%.
In 2004, I&J and other fishing companies in the deep sea trawling industry were recognised for their responsible management of inshore and deep sea hake resources with accreditation from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an independent global charity that uses a product label to reward environmentally responsible fishery management and practices.
In 2006, I&J and members of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association (SADSTIA), agreed to “ring-fence” the trawl grounds that had been trawled since the early twentieth century and prevent trawling outside those areas. The ring-fencing initiative is a voluntary undertaking on the part of the South African fishing industry to only trawl on currently used grounds, prevent damage to lightly trawled areas, and to preserve natural refuges for hake. I&J vessels only trawl within the ring-fenced grounds.
In 2009, I&J co-founded the Responsible Fisheries Alliance to ensure that healthy marine ecosystems underpin a robust seafood industry in Southern Africa. The RFA is comprised of a small group of like-minded organisations that are willing to contribute resources and time towards the achievement of promoting and implementing responsible fishing practices.
In 2010 I&J celebrated its pioneering and historic centenary. With world-class assets, leadership in sustainable fishing and a proud and loyal workforce, I&J is well-prepared to continue the legacy of its founders, George Irvin and Charles Johnson, and the thousands of employees who have contributed to making I&J the dynamic seafood company it is today.
I&J’s bold red, white and black logo was registered in 1966, but it was only in the late 1970s that Irvin & Johnson adopted a single brand strategy. Over the years, the original logo has been adapted and modernised. In 2010, a special logo was developed to commemorate the 100-year milestone. The latest logo revision took place in 2012 with the addition of "Since 1910".
I&J’s sponsorship of uShaka Marine World is about fostering, love, respect and understanding of our oceans and inspiring support for their future well-being. I&J supports financially the aquarium in important activities like ensuring all the fish, turtles, jelly fish, rays and sharks get their daily meal.
In September 2015, I&J took delivery of two new fishing trawlers that bear distinctly South African names: Umlobi, a 66m, 2 431 ton freezer factory trawler, expected to become the flagship of the I&J fleet; and Ferox, a brand new, purpose-built fresh fish trawler.