5 British Concentration Camps of the South African War 1900-1902
BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Barberton camp was opened at the beginning of February 1901 but it grew slowly. By the end of August 1901 it only had about 2,000 inmates, small by the standards of most camps. It was situated to the south-west of the town on high ground. Both Dr Kendal Franks and the Ladies Committee were very taken with the lovely setting, surrounded by high hills, close to the Swaziland border. B. Graumann, who was superintendent throughout the war, sent in terse reports so it is often difficult to glean much about the life of the camp. He appears to have been an efficient man, however, and he was much praised by Kendal Franks, when he visited the camp in August 1901. The camp was beautifully pitched, the tents laid out with the utmost regularity (which always impressed the British authorities) and there was a general appearance of order and cleanliness. At the beginning of August there was an influx of over 1,000 Boers and a second camp was established in the local agricultural showgrounds.1

This new group included 121 Africans, amongst them women and children, forty-seven of whom drew rations. For some time they slept and ate in the same tents as their employers but Graumann eventually moved them into a separate location, adjacent to the camp. Such ‘undue familiarity’ could not be allowed, he considered. Here they were rationed on a ‘native’ scale, which usually included less meat and mealie meal rather than flour. Nevertheless it would seem that some still slept in the main camp for Graumann later moved them further away and fenced in the new camp, as well as establishing a system of inspection to ensure that the people slept in their own camp after ‘lights out’.2

In some respects Barberton camp was unusually comfortable. Wooden flooring was laid down in many of the tents and most people had beds, made by the people with wood provided by the authorities. The presence of white ants was one reason for these steps, which was a blessing in disguise, the Ladies Committee thought. Not surprisingly, the white ants soon ate the flooring, however, their destruction causing ‘endless trouble’, the superintendent complained.3

Both Dr Kendal Franks and the Ladies Committee were particularly taken with the method of issuing rations at Barberton. This was a somewhat elaborate system in which the rations were prepared beforehand in pigeonholes and rapidly handed out to each family, who returned the bags the next time. Patients in hospital were wisely fed, with vegetables, butter and oatmeal in addition to the more usual medical comforts such as jam and sago. Indeed, many people in the camp seem to have been able to get vegetables, as the new MO, Dr Longden, noted in his first report at the end of November 1901. Early in the new year the camp started its own vegetable garden. Unlike some camps, this proved a success and by May 1902 the camp inmates were receiving a good supply of their own fresh vegetables. Nevertheless, there were the usual problems with food, particularly the meat which gave way to the hated corned beef by September 1901. By the middle of 1902 Barberton camp was using frozen meat, far superior in quality to anything local, Graumann considered. Fresh milk was not available either and the Ladies Committee was concerned that the condensed milk was watered down too much. Rations improved considerably in 1902 when all received butter, treacle and vegetables. Children under twelve were given fresh milk while adults got tinned milk. The soup kitchen recommended by the Ladies Committee was reported to be a great success. By this time hot water was also available at all times. Later on a public bakery was also introduced, with women employed to bake bread for the whole camp.4

Health was relatively good, despite the presence of malaria which often contributed to general debility. In one case a family of sixteen from Komati Poort brought the disease with them. The camp could not escape the measles epidemic but its ravages were relatively mild. Blacks did not escape the mortality either; two died in August 1901 and seven in September, it was reported. By 1902 there were almost no deaths and little sickness, although April saw an outbreak of whooping cough which kept children away from school. New arrivals were quarantined for two weeks which prevented the spread of epidemics and the lone case of scarlet fever was immediately isolated so that the disease did not spread. A restrictive aspect of Barberton camp, which must have been unpopular, was the very limited access to patients in hospital. In April 1902 it was reported that this was confined to twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays only.5

The graph below, which gives simple totals, indicates that Barberton mortality was less than the Transvaal average. The pattern of deaths is fairly simple with a single peak, representing the measles epidemic, which was of fairly short duration, lasting only a couple of months.

However, simple totals can be misleading, which is why we use death rates to get a more accurate picture of what is happening. In Barberton the measles epidemic brought the children’s death rate considerably higher than the camp average for a brief period. (Remember however, that averages are brought down by lower deaths of adults; the children’s death rate is probably higher). There are two anomalies which are not significant – the high male death rate at the beginning and the second children’s peak. Both represent a small number of deaths in a small population. This is why they are barely visible in the graph above.

Barberton camp was by no means isolated from the town. A number of town residents drew rations from the camp, while some women from the camp worked as domestic servants in the town. Work could be a source of conflict, however. The British authorities were governed by the Victorian notion that idle hands made mischief and sought every opportunity to keep the camp inmates, especially the men, active. The Boers, on the other hand, were largely a pre-industrial, rural people who were not accustomed to regular or constant work. They had an aversion, the camp superintendent complained, ‘to working for any longer period than that required for bringing in the amount needed for some intended purchase; when lassitude or something else intervenes and the party suggest being replaced by a sister or some other tender relative’. Perhaps for this reason, a system of roll-call was introduced, at eight every morning, when camp duties were distributed to the men. This was suspended once peace was declared, and any restrictions on the movement of the inmates removed, a change which was ‘much appreciated’, the superintendent observed. With the prospect of returning home, however, the men were not keen to work, even with increased pay, Graumann complained.6

The Ladies Committee was unimpressed by the school as the headmaster was also the principal of the town school. Such divided responsibility was not conducive to effective teaching. All classes took place in a single, large room, discipline was slack and the teaching assistants spoke poor English. ‘The children had not the alert, eager look which we have noticed with so much pleasure in several other camp schools’, the Committee observed. By the new year a fulltime man had been appointed, who was energetic and interested.7

As in many of the Transvaal camps, a proportion of the camp inmates were sent down to Merebank in Natal towards the end of 1901. Graumann attempted to make them as comfortable as possible on the journey, providing covers for the trucks in which they travelled so that they were not exposed the elements, as some were.8

As in so many camps, also, transport for camp work was difficult. In Barberton no animals could be obtained from the military and the camp inmates had none, so Graumann was forced to hire oxen from townspeople. Eventually he obtained his own mules although they arrived with no harness, which had to be made in the camp.

Initially the town carried out the sanitary work of the camp, but this was abandoned by the end of the year when the camp took over its own work. This was much more satisfactory, Graumann considered, as they were both more thorough and faster.9

Graumann may have been capable but he appears to have had limited sympathy for the people under his care. He complained several times that the camp inmates were reluctant to work, an indication that his relations with them were not good. ‘The majority of these people appear to be under the impression that it is the duty of the Government to support them, and will at times refuse to help even their friends’, he reported in June 1901. At the same time he may have had to contend with an unsympathetic military commandant. The British were usually willing to allow those who could afford it to live outside the camp but this was rarely allowed by the military in Barberton. Only twenty were permitted to do so in June 1901. Once the second camp was established, the entire area was surrounded by barbed wire and the inmates were only allowed into the town on special permits. Such restrictions also suggest tight military control.

June 1902 was enlivened with coronation festivities, much enjoyed by all, it was said. This included a soiree, given by the staff, concerts for adults and children, a dinner for the old people, and a dance on 27th. There was also a sports day and picnic for the children and coronation medals were distributed to them. At this late stage, rather surprisingly, Graumann decided to construct a tennis court for the camp staff. 10

As early as June 1902, immediately after peace was declared, camp inmates began to leave, impacting on class attendance in the school. Barberton saw the same movements of people at this time as the other camps, and much office time was taken up, it was reported, in responding to enquiries about the health and whereabouts of wives, sisters and sweethearts. ‘Great joy and excitement’ prevailed as families were reunited. The groups departed with a tent, a months’ rations and the cooking utensils, blankets and other items they had acquired in the camp. Staff and inmates parted harmoniously, Graumann thought, many people expressing appreciation for all that had been done for them. The camp seems to have been closed by early November 1902, for there is no November report.11


Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.53-54, 114-117, 226-228, 339-341; Cd 853, pp.49-50; Cd 902, pp.56-57.

Unpublished camp reports: DBC 11-14 in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA].

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp.320-323

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp.156-160.

1 Cd 819, p. 115, 227, 320; Cd 893, p.156.

2 Cd 819, p. 227.

3 Cd 893, p.158

4 Cd 819, p. 321; Cd 853, p.49.

5 Cd 819, p. 322, 341; NASA, DBC 12, April 1902.

6 NASA, DBC 11, June 1902.

7 Cd 893, p.159. NASA, DBC 12, January 1902.

8 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901; DBC 12, December 1901.

9 NASA, DBC 12, December 1901.

10 NASA, DBC 11, June 1902.

11 NASA, DBC 11, June 1902.

Acknowledgments: The project was funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is not responsible for the contents of the database. The help of the following research assistants is gratefully acknowledged: Ryna Boshoff, Murray Gorman, Janie Grobler, Marelize Grobler, Luke Humby, Clare O’Reilly Jacomina Roose, Elsa Strydom, Mary van Blerk. Thanks also go to Peter Dennis for the design of the original database and to Dr Iain Smith, co-grantholder.