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


Although the Ladies Committee stated that Brandfort camp was opened in March 1901, it had certainly been formed by the end of January 1901, when it was reported that there were about two hundred people living there, mainly from Bultfontein and Hoopstad. At this stage many of the Boer families were scattered through the town or living in wagons, rather than in tents. Dr Last, from the town, cared for the inmates and there was, unusually, one trained nurse.1 Some of the people living in the town were able to support themselves and the British authorities were reluctant to supply them with rations. Nor did the British want to force them into the camps - ‘bear in mind that these camps are not meant to be prisons; you must act in all cases with tact’, the Chief Superintendent warned the Brandfort superintendent. By August 1901, when Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp, everyone had been moved into tents.2

From the first, the medical officer was concerned about health in the camp. A number of small children were suffering from diarrhoea, although there had been no fatalities. Women and children slept on the ground with little protection and the doctor was concerned that they would suffer from pulmonary diseases in the wet weather. He urged the erection of corrugated iron huts with wooden floors or the provision of mattresses at the very least. But, at this early stage in the civilian administration of the camps, economy was the order of the day. Blankets would be provided only where absolutely necessary, along with mattress ticking. The women must make their own bedding with 15 lbs of hay allowed them, the MO was informed.3 Fortunately at this stage the inmates still had the cattle which they had brought into camp with them and milk was freely available for the children. Later on, however, grazing deteriorated and the refugee stock was sold to the ORC administration and removed to farms nearer to Bloemfontein,. In other respects the camp was administered very frugally and there were few comforts. Two boilers had been acquired to ensure that boiled water was available but the inmates had nothing to store water in to prevent it from becoming polluted afterwards.4

A black camp grew up alongside that of the Boers, reaching about 1 800 people by mid-April 1901; by August there were at least 4 000 inmates. In the early days, at least, black inmates received the same rations as the whites but the accommodation was much more haphazard, consisting of ‘rather poor’ tents, which some people covered with matting to make them more waterproof. No sanitation was provided and inmates had to ‘report’ to a wooded kloof a mile above the camp ‘for the purposes of nature’. In March 1901 there were still no paid officials. The camp was too far away for him to supervise properly, the superintendent complained, and he recommended that ‘Peter’ be appointed to oversee. Dr Last provided the black inmates with basic medical attention but there was no hospital accommodation for them; those needing hospital care were treated in the ambulance wagons. Fortunately there were few at this stage, the most serious being syphilitic and leprosy cases5 Clearly health in the camp was not good, however.

At the end of March the superintendent reported that Peter was down with fever and infant mortality was ‘rather high’. It might become necessary to appoint a white superintendent, he noted. Eventually Peter was demoted, replaced by a white superintendent, Mr Meintjes, at the derisory salary of £5 a month, previously paid to Peter. An assistant, Hendrik Khukhu, was also appointed. Children attended school in the local town location. Eventually the size of the black camp was partially reduced by returning a number of Basuto nationals to their homes in Basutoland. About September 1901 it was decided to move the black camp from Brandfort. This meant new arrangements had to be made for the men who worked in the white camp, along with their families.6

An important factor in the smooth running of the camps was good relations between the various authorities. Somewhat puzzlingly, the inspector, Mr Daller, reported that Mr Smith, the superintendent, got on well with the local officer commanding but Smith was already writing to the Chief Superintendent to complain of the OC’s interference. Despite these ripples, the camp appeared to be relatively well run at this stage. The camp was clean and those coming in from infected areas were kept in isolation, a relatively rare proceeding. Indeed, Dr Pratt Yule, the ORC MOH, considered it ‘better conducted than any I have inspected hitherto’. He was particularly impressed by the new superintendent, Mr E.J. Jacobs, and the MO, Dr Martinius.7

By the end of March 1901 numbers in the white camp were mounting and, as in other camps, people arrived without warning and tents were in short supply. Health declined and typhoid was prevalent. Hospital accommodation was inadequate and the wagons and tents were overcrowded. The new arrivals were often in a desperate state. Some had been in a Boer laager in the Hoopstad district for some months; the children were clad only in sheep skins and hides and they had been on very short rations - ‘the people almost without exception expressed their pleasure at having been taken away from the commandos’, the Chief Superintendent claimed. Pratt Yule was reluctant to send more people from infected camps like Bloemfontein but the authorities were unsympathetic. ‘Rot’, someone minuted in the margin of his report. Come they did – 3 000 arrived on 9 August 1901, in a bad state of health, with only 25 tents to accommodate them. Many of the new arrivals suffered from trachoma, an eye disease caused by flies and fairly common amongst the Dutch, the MO reported.8

One source of disease, Dr Kendal Franks was convinced, was the insanitary condition of the nearby town of Brandfort, which he considered was primitive. Much of the drinking and cooking water came from open sluits [furrows]; excrement was emptied into cesspools close to the water wells; cattle roamed the town and slaughtering of cattle took place there as well. Measles and diphtheria broke out there before the camps. In an attempt to isolate the camp, the inmates were prevented from going into town but, since the military commandant continued to issue passes, some contact was inevitable. Worse still, the military authorities sent about a hundred people from the town to the camp. Diphtheria spread to the camp by the middle of August although, fortunately, it was the one disease for which there was an effective drug therapy, known as an anti-toxin, which was provided. Measles soon followed, a result, Jacobs was convinced, of the indifference of the military to the risk of infection.9

In Brandfort camp the two graphs showing the number of people who died, and the death rate, which puts the deaths in proportion in relation to the number of people in the camp, show little difference. The primary cause of death in Brandfort camp was the very severe measles epidemic, which peaked in October 1901 and died away quite sharply after that. There is little indication of the summer typhoid epidemic which plagued a number of the camps, except amongst the adult women.

Once the measles epidemic started, there was the problem of hospital accommodation for the sick. The more serious cases were much better off in hospital, the MO was convinced but it was some time before he received beds for the hospital.10 Brandfort was a camp with a particularly high mortality rate, peaking in October 1901 and coinciding with the diphtheria epidemic, brought in by a group of people ‘in very poor condition from continual trekking’. The measles epidemic spread so rapidly that attempts at isolation broke down and there were so many cases that the hospital could not house them all. Worse still, the disease was so severe that almost every case developed broncho-pneumonia ‘with very fatal results’. Kendal Franks’ observations in Brandfort camp give a classic description of the effects of severe measles:

The children attacked by measles have been left in a very debilitated condition and appear extremely emaciated, pale, anaemic and puny, a state which strongly predisposes them to other affections from which in their weak state they have much less chance of recovery. The feeding up process has to be done very carefully, as diarrhoea is very apt to ensue and carry the patient off.

In addition:

The high death rate and the extreme debility after disease suggests that there may be an element of scurvy in these cases . . . I attribute this in part to the absence of vegetable juices in the diet. Many of the refugees have now been in the camps for nearly twelve months. Vegetables are not supplied in the diet, and, even to those of the refugees with money, are not obtainable. The Boer in ordinary times, though living in the majority of cases on mealies, meat and coffee, indulges freely in pumpkins, and peaches are always plentiful at the farms in the summer season. Something ought to be added to the present refuge diet scale which will in a measure replace the lacking vegetables.11

The water supply was a constant struggle. Camp washing took place above the dam which supplied the town’s water, to which the municipality understandably objected. Since the town was so dirty, the camp authorities were not very sympathetic but they agreed to sink more boreholes. They were worried, though, that this would reduce the existing water supply. By February 1902, when camp management had become more sophisticated, conditions had improved. The water was sent away for chemical analysis; on the whole, it was reported to be of good quality, if rather hard.12

Although Kendal Franks thought highly of the camp superintendent, Jacobs, who was a Cape man, he was most unpopular with the women. The quality of the meat was so poor, ‘old, thin and full of vermin’, that the women complained but were brushed off. The meat was good enough for the women in the Transvaal camps, Jacobs declared. As a result, the women rioted. The ringleaders, including young Maria Els, were arrested and imprisoned. There are several versions of this story and some historians have questioned its authenticity. There can be little doubt, though, that the meat was disgusting. The MOs condemned it repeatedly and even when it was edible, the quality was so poor that it could only be used for making soup ‘and even then would only make very inferior soup’.13

Whatever the truth, there can be little doubt that Jacobs was losing control of his camp. One reason for the women’s hostility seems to relate to the fact that he was a ‘loyal’ Afrikaner. In a rather odd letter to Captain Trollope, the CSRC, the DRC minister in Brandfort, ds. Pienaar, explained:

Capt., there is one thing which I wish to put before you, and I do so because it concerns all the camps in general. It may seem a trivial affair, but, you will understand that no one knows these people better   their real wants and feeling   than their minister. Now, I may tell you straightforwardly, that one great cause of the continual and increasing state of unrest and bitterness in the RCs, is the appointment or the domination by men (not Englishmen) whom these people hated before and during the war. I do not know how many of these people have told me already that they would feel much better and would obey much more, if real Englishmen had the business of the camps in their hands. Superintendents make a most serious mistake in appointing in these camps former burghers of the colonies to rule the women; unless they find a man of great skill and tact.14

In addition, the superintendent’s relations with the military authorities deteriorated badly. Insults flew back and forth and Jacobs wrote crossly: ‘It seems that the military authorities here eagerly jump at the slightest chance to attack me . . . I might write you a complaint every day shewing indisputably their rudeness, incivility, and their very evident desire to obstruct my work in every possible way.’ He demanded support from his superiors which was given readily at this stage, since they considered that he managed the camp ably.15

When the Ladies Committee visited Brandfort in October 1901, they were also uncritical of Jacobs. It was the hospital and the medical staff which upset them. The marquees were dirty and the nursing badly done, they complained. Conditions were so bad that they urged that Dr Pratt Yule, be sent to investigate and Dr Polson should be dismissed since he had discharged several patients when they were still ill and he was taking medical comforts for his own use.16

Pratt Yule duly arrived. He was reasonably satisfied with the general condition of the camp. Some of the tents were worn but the latrines, now built of brick, were ‘beautifully clean’ and the water supply was good. But the hospital was a different story. As in Bethulie camp, the amounts of alcohol used was ‘startling’. ‘It appears that patients are, almost without exception, on brandy or wine, and it is extremely improbable that this is necessary in every case. The amount disposed of suggests to me a leakage somewhere.’ The leakage was not hard to find. The doctors supplied themselves from the dispensary whenever they felt like it, the sisters were allowed a bottle of wine every fortnight and the male assistants were treated to brandy if they had to do night work. Since the rations given to the medical staff were inadequate, they also supplied themselves liberally from the medical comforts. There was ‘an appreciable looseness of discipline’ amongst the probationers and orderlies.17

We do not know what decisions were finally taken but, by December 1901, Jacobs had disappeared from the camp service. The acting superintendent, George Randle, sent in a long report on the condition of Brandfort camp. The place, he felt, was untidy and one difficulty was that the young, unmarried corporals, who had been appointed to police the camp, lacked the authority to force the women to obey the sanitary regulations. ‘It was ludicrous to see the blustering shame faced way they told a woman to clean up, many of them admitted they could not keep the ladies in order’, he wrote. He also commented on the staff, whom he described as ‘rather a funny one’. Certainly they were not harmonious. Chase, the office man, was excellent but ‘as is invariably the case with Afrikanders . . . not very popular with the masses’. He lacked the knack of getting the most out of the Dutchmen. Dr Martinius, the PMO, he considered good but his fault was that he did not have a will of his own. As a result Sister McBride, the matron, held entire sway ‘and rules the roost at the hospitals’. Randle himself was not on speaking terms with the other doctor, Dr Cameron, although the latter performed his duties adequately. Sister Donovan, the camp matron, despite being a colonial and unqualified, was all that could be desired. Unfortunately she and Sister McBride did not get on – ‘it’s very interesting to hear the loving things they say of one another’. Fortunately the new superintendent, J. Dwyer, who was appointed in January 1902, did have the knack of managing people. By May the camp and hospital matrons were ‘on excellent terms’, inviting one another to tea and dinner.18

Brandfort was the last of the ORC camps to be closed. An orphanage was established there to provide for the many children who had lost their parents during the war and had no relatives to care for them. The camp authorities tried to see that such children were looked after properly. They agreed that 26-year-old Miss Isabella Pieters, a hospital nurse, could have her seven orphaned brothers and sisters but, where the children were taken in by people who lacked the resources to provide for them properly, ‘considerable pressure should be brought to bear to make them give up charge’. It was not only orphans who remained. Mrs A. Bothma of Modderfontein farm near Bloemfontein, brought one of her children back to the camp in December 1902. She wanted her child to continue its schooling but she lived too far out of town for the child to travel in daily and she was too poor to pay for boarding in town. The camp authorities agreed to keep the child for the time being. As a result, as late as December 1902 the orphanage grew in size and camp school was reported to be flourishing.19

The orphaned children were not the only people to remain in Brandfort camp. In September 1902 the superintendent reported that he still had over 2 000 people in his camp and the great majority ‘show no great desire to leave’. Eventually relief works were set up for bywoners who were unable to return to the land and the superintendent was urged to persuade the people to leave in larger numbers. It became a considerable struggle to dispose of the remaining inmates, by January consisting largely of the old and infirm, or widows and orphans with no support. The last of the orphans left towards the end of March 1903, either to other orphanages or to relatives. Widows were more of a problem. Inspector Tonkin reported:

It is very difficult to make the younger widows understand that the govt is not going to keep them in idleness for the remainder of their lives, when I told some of them that they would have to work and that only the worker would receive aid from govt they were almost dumbfounded. I have sent several back to their tents to think over the position of affairs’.20

Stern words did not always work and the superintendent found repatriation a bitter experience.

The instruction to send out all the boys over 12 years, and their families are very well in theory, but in practice they work very harshly. In many cases it means sending the family out practically to starve. The mothers will not be persuaded to leave the younger children behind but insist on taking them with them. One lad can not be expected to support the whole family. As a rule they do not wish to go to the relief works at all, but would rather go anywhere else. The widows start to cry and the office is a terrible place to be in. As you know, I am all for making the people work for a living if they are able to do so at all, but this game altogether upset me yesterday. I was prepared for a few scenes, but yesterday was a constant succession of them. Can some other provision not be made? Would it not be sufficient to send out the boys to earn their living? As it is, I am afraid we are sending out a lot of people who are almost helpless, and if we send such to the relief works, the authorities will not bless us.21

In March 1903 there were still 343 people left in Brandfort camp, seven of them old, blind and broken down but homes were finally found for them all.22


H. Dampier, ‘Women’s Testimonies of the Concentration Camps of the South African War: 1899-1902 and After’ (PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, 2005).

E.H. Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, (Bloemfontein, Nasionale Pers, 1924).

E. Neethling, Mag Ons Vergeet (Cape Town, Nasionale Pers, 1938).

F. Pretorius, ed., Scorched Earth (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 2001).

SRC files in the Free State Archives Repository [FSAR].

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 79-83.

1 FSAR, MG 1, 2/2/1901; SRC 2/238, 7/2/1901; SRC 1/126. 15/2/1901.

2 FSAR, SRC 3/608, 13/3/1901; SRC 11/4151, 10/8/1901.

3 FSAR, SRC 1/126, 15/2/1901; SRC 2 19/2/1901.

4 FSAR, SRC 2/258, 22/2/1901; CO 29A 2674/01, 29/7/1901; SRC 2/402, 3/3/1901.

5 Pretorius, ed,. Scorched Earth, pp.154-167; FSAR, 2/402, 3/3/1901; SRC 3/543, 9/3/1901; SRC 5/1304, 15/4/1901.

6 FSAR, SRC 4/1101, 12/4/1901; SRC 5/1359, 15/4/1901; SRC 7/2020, 17/5/1901; SRC 7/1825, 12/5/1901; SRC 12/4689, 2/9/1901.

7 FSAR, SRC 7/1938, 18/5/1901; SRC 7/2020, 17/5/1901; SRC 8/2345, 1/6/1901; SRC 11/4151, 10/8/1901.

8 Cd 819, p.292; FSAR, SRC 4/933, 30/3/1901; SRC 5/1323, 13/4/1901; SRC 11/3994, 8/8/1901; SRC 11/4011, 9/8/1901; SRC 11/4247, 15 August 1901.

9 FSAR, SRC 11/4151, 10/8/1901; SRC 11/4103, 12/8/1901; SRC 12/4677, 12/9/1901.

10 FSAR, SRC 13/5145, 23/9/1901.

11 FSAR, SRC 20/7715, 14/11/1901.

12 FSAR, SRC 11/4152, 15/8/1901; SRC 18/7017ii, 24/2/1902.

13 Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, pp.141-142; Neethling, Mag Ons Vergeet, p.35-37 Dampier, Women’s Testimonies, pp.121-157; FSAR, SRC 13/5052, 22/9/1901.

14 FSAR, SRC 14/5650, 9/10/1901.

15 FSAR, SRC 12/4493, 3/9/1901.

16 FSAR, SRC 17/6664, 3/11/1901; Cd 893, p.80; NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 42229/76, 9/11/1901.

17 FSAR, SRC 20/7715, 14/11/1901.

18 FSAR, SRC 81/7007, 30/12/1901; SRC 24/8596, 4/5/1902.

19 FSAR, SRC 27/9582, 15/8/1902; SRC 29/9924, 29/9/1902; SRC 31/10446, 4/12/1902; SRC 31/10447, 11/12/1902.

20 FSAR, SRC 28/9745, 12/9/1902; SRC 30/10134, 25/10/1902; SRC 32/10621, 8/1/1903; SRC 32/10678, 20/1/1903.

21 FSAR, SRC 33/10727, 23/1/1903.

22 FSAR, SRC 33/10805, 4/3/1903.

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.