Mebos and Biltong Fund

This is the heading of a SA Railways and Harbours article from September 1916. The Magazine Committee were looking to send gifts of Mebos and Biltong to their staff serving in East Africa and Overseas. They were expecting to send 4,000 parcels at a cost of 2/6. 6p was also known as a ‘tanner’ and a shilling was a bob (more on old currency here) – the purchasing power of 2/6 in 2017 was approximately £7.37 according to the currency converter. £1 in 1916 was the equivalent of £89.23 today.

A recent visit to a South African shop in Hertfordshire revealed 1kg of biltong cost £42 and a 250g bar of mebos is £6.50. I wonder therefore how much biltong and mebos SA Harbours and Railways expected to send to their ‘boys’. Perhaps the items were cheaper in 1916 due to production costs and the greater prevalence of home industry. And there are the shipping costs which someone would have had to account for.

While biltong is pretty well-known, similar to beef jerky, mebos is less so. It’s made of apricots soaked in salt and then dried and coated with sugar (see recipe). The one item missing is the South African rusk (according to wikipedia, there are a wide range of country specific varieties).

The other burning question is how many of these parcels actually got sent and how many arrived in intact? I imagine those heading to the Western Front arrived with their intended recipient, but am not so sure of those headed to East Africa given some of the accounts one reads of food parcels not arriving or being tampered with.

I presume we won’t know the answers to these questions – I’ll let you know if I discover a report on the matter. But what this little advert does go to show is that staff/colleagues were being thought of.

The December 1916 edition tells us what the men received: 1lb Mebos and dried fruit; 1lb biltong; 1 sprig of heather; 1 bag of comforts from the Ladies Committee. The parcels for Europe were being sent care of WP Schreiner. Regarding East Africa, it was recognised that transport difficulties were ‘so great that there is little likelihood of parcels (if sent) reaching the men in time for Christmas, if at all’ so that the funds which would have been spent on them will be kept until they return.

And if you’re into railway history – the SA Railways and Harbours Magazines for 1916-1918 are all on line and contain an amazing eclectic collection of articles on railways around the world, and during the war.