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


Heidelberg was one of the oldest camps and was probably already in existence in October 1900, when families harbouring Boer commandos were brought into the town, although there may also have been substantial numbers of destitute Boers for whom the British had to provide. By February 1901 there were over 1,200 people living there but the camp was never very large. At the end of June 1901 there were only 751 inmates and the number remained at under 1,000 for most of the period of the existence of the camp. Later a number of the families were moved to the Natal camps. Unusually, the superintendent for the entire life of the camp was a local Heidelberg man, 32-year-old Lieutenant Arnold Allison, previously with the Corps of Guides, who was married to a Boer woman.1 A number of Free State families had fled to Heidelberg as the British army advanced and they also found themselves in the camp. In May, however, they were returned to Kroonstad. It was some time before a similar exchange took place from the Free State, however, since Transvaal ‘refugees’ were not accepted until English-speaking Uitlander refugees were also allowed back – an indication of how sensitive the British authorities were to the anxieties of the impoverished Uitlanders at the coast. A black camp was probably formed early in 1901 but there is little information about it. There were also a handful of black servants in the white camp – 49, including 20 children in November 1901.2

The camp soon outgrew its original site and a second camp was established towards the end of May 1901, linked by a deep sluit and a bridge of poplars and stone, it was reported. Later a third camp was also set up. Dr Kendal Franks considered the site a good one on high ground, well supplied with water. The camp seems never to have been fenced although both Dr Franks and the Ladies Committee recommended it, the former because the people, who were allowed into town twice a week, tended to bring back ‘quack remedies’, Boer traditional medicines, while the Ladies Committee wanted to keep out animals. The British doctors, schooled in a more modern medical tradition, heartily disapproved of Boer medicine. Heidelberg was one of the camps where the use of folk remedies was commented upon, including cow dung mixed with sulphur, giving rise to diarrhoea, and cotton tied round babies’ wrists to prevent convulsions. ‘Would that all Boer “remedies” were equally harmless’, the Ladies Committee lamented. Another medical curiosity in the camp, upon which Dr Franks commented, was a pair of dwarfs, brothers, both burghers and both of whom were married with large families. The children, he noted, were well formed.3

Allison was an easy, sympathetic superintendent, untroubled by Boer habits which disturbed the visiting British inspectors. While the tents were always clean, the appearance of the camp was scruffy. A number of people lived in sod houses, roofed with galvanised iron and others remained for some time in their wagons with tents pitched at the side. As the camp expanded, however, tents were pitched in the approved style in neat rows. Facilities tended to be rudimentary. There were no washing facilities for the women at all and only rough provision for the men, the Ladies Committee noted in November 1901. ‘Small black boys’ were employed to keep the latrines clean which also seemed hardly ideal. Nor was Allison inclined to force the children into hospital. The people preferred nursing their own children, he noted, until it became necessary to send them to hospital. The low rate of sickness during the early months made this laissez faire attitude possible. In July 1901 there were only eleven deaths, nine of them from measles.4

Allison was much more concerned about the camp rations. By July, as the winter grazing deteriorated, the meat declined in quality. Children received some milk, however, with a tin issued to each toddler every second day, but the quality varied – Milkmaid brand was fine but Sledge was often in a state of decomposition. The milk ration was increased later to a tin a day for children under three in lieu of meat, which was a misunderstanding of head office instructions, the Ladies Committee was convinced, believing that the children should also receive meat.5 Unusually, ‘coolies’ were allowed to hawk vegetables in the camp. The Ladies Committee considered their prices rather high at 6d for a pumpkin and turnips at 1d each, but they may well have saved lives. Some lime juice was also available but the efforts to garden were not very successful at first. Some of the Heidelberg camp inmates seem to have been relatively affluent. By November Poynton’s store was making £500 a month selling tinned salmon, sardines, butter, lard, golden syrup and preserved ginger, amongst other items. The storekeeper would like to have stocked concertinas but was forbidden by the Director of Civil Supplies.6 By July indigent families were receiving fabric and sewing materials from the camp store to make their own clothes. These were much needed for some of the families arrived in the camp in rags. Beds were manufactured by the men in the camp – a considerable boon in the cold winter. In July 1901 Mr A. Strydom, one of the camp inmates, was appointed as minister to conduct the funeral services.

Sadly, this had become necessary since Heidelberg did not escape the measles epidemic which swept through the country. There were other problems too, Dr Franks considered. The camp was a straggly affair, he complained and he thought the wagons were ‘models of disorder’; he urged that they be removed. Franks was also critical of the lack of a camp matron or any system of inspection, which could be seen in the condition of the tents, although he admitted that they were clean.

When measles struck in July 1901, the epidemic was a severe one, although mortality was not as high as in some camps, 38 dying out of 728 cases, the MO reported in August 1901. Dr Ralston did not, however, consider the epidemic very virulent, and he attributed the deaths to the ‘ignorance and inattention’ of the parents.

‘When one takes into account the difficulties of overcoming ignorant prejudice, the fact that 36 of these deaths occurred in children under three years, and also the fact that a very large proportion of the children suffered from an early diarrhoea, induced by the parent’s measures, adopted for the prevention of the disease and carried out before bringing the children under one’s notice, it is seen that is by no means a high death-rate, and one can only be surprised that so many of the children recover. The two cases of cancrum oris arose in children very much neglected, and I consider that they were largely due to the carelessness and diet of the parents in treating what would in all probability have been simple cases of ulcers of the mouth’.7

As so often, the doctors were critical of the nursing of the mothers whom they considered neglected the children. Dr Ralston told Dr Franks that the problem was ‘a certain fatalism, “it is God’s will” is the excuse for sitting by a sick child and never moving to give them food or the medicines ordered by the doctor’. This was a common criticism and may have resulted partly from the apathy which was a product of malnutrition and depression, although fatalism may have played its part, as the Rev. Lückhoff had suggested in the case of Bethulie camp. The doctors may also have been shocked by the state of the children, for a number of cases of the terrible cancrum oris occurred, including one in a child who had just arrived from a commando. Middle ear disease was also a common complication, the MO reported.8

The general impression of Heidelberg was that it was a ‘good’ camp and the graphs support this to some extent. The total number of deaths was below the Transvaal average. However, sickness continued for a long time and there seems to have been a recrudescence of childhood diseases in about November 1901 (this was probably not typhoid because the adults were not affected.)

The mortality rates confirm that Heidelberg deaths were about average. For a brief time the measles epidemic was exceptionally severe; the second peak seems to have coincided with the peak of the measles epidemic throughout the Transvaal. The third peak of children’s deaths is not statistically important since it represents a very small number of deaths in a small population.

Gradually the camp was brought into the sort of order that the British esteemed. A camp matron was appointed and a daily inspection of the tents instituted. A bootmaker was employed to make boots for the destitute. Some thirty to forty police were on duty to patrol the camp, generally to keep order and prevent people from entering the camp without permission. Roofed latrines with concrete floors were built. A solid hospital replaced the marquees which were then used as a hospital for the black labourers. By May 1902 amenities also included two tennis courts, two football fields and a croquet ground, all of which were much appreciated, Allison reported.9

By the end of the year the main problem was a persistent diarrhoea, probably from using contaminated water which had not been boiled. The mothers were also careless about ensuring that their children changed their damp clothing when they had been playing in the rain, giving rise to pneumonia, the MO complained.10 When the new MO, Dr H. Crook arrived from Johannesburg camp, he found enteric a continuing problem, and he struggled to discover why, since the camp was clean and the water supply seemed pure, although he sent it away for analysis. Fortunately, by the following month the disease was dying out. As sickness diminished, Dr Crook began to consider more active measures for the prevention of disease. Sixty per cent of the children under twelve had never been vaccinated, and this demanded urgent attention, he considered. In the event, vaccination seems never to have taken place. The usual, less threatening, childhood diseases appeared in 1902, including chicken pox and measles, while diphtheria also occurred sporadically.11

Dr Franks was critical of education in Heidelberg camp, primarily because the school was conducted by a Cape Afrikaner, Mr Lingher. The school camps under the supervision of Britishers were far more satisfactory, Franks considered, the best being under a Scot. It would be advisable if all headmasters and at least half the staff were British, he recommended, given the importance of education in the future of South Africa. Whatever Franks’ aspersions on local teachers, Lingher appeared to be hard working and had started a night school for adults, not very large but the men who attended showed ‘the keenest desire to learn’.12

The arrival of the peace led to jollifications. A picnic in a nearby kloof was enjoyed by the children, who were plied with cakes, sweets and mineral waters, while a dinner was held for the old people and camp employees. In the evening they were entertained with a gramophone and the evening concluded with cheers for the King, Allison reported proudly. A few days later a sports day was held while the adults had a dance and the camp staff were given a dinner.13

By July 1902 repatriation was under way, 239 families leaving in that month. The inmates were anxious to get home before the start of the sowing season, Allison reported. Unfortunately the departures slowed in the next couple of months, largely because of the lack of seed and stock, Allison believed. There was ample stock available but the people lacked the resources to buy. By November he was becoming increasingly anxious on their behalf since the sowing season was rapidly passing. Others lacked land and left only after the Land Settlement Board provided them with ground. Since November was the last report, the camp was, presumably, closed during that month.14


E.H. Hobhouse, The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell (London, Methuen, 1902).

S.B. Spies, Methods of Barbarism? Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics January 1900-May 1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1977).

I. Uys, Heidelbergers of the Boer War (Heidelberg, The Author, 1981).

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.22-23, 117-119, 232-234, 347-350; Cd 853, pp. 60-62.

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

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

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp.296-299.

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp.184-188.

1 Uys, Heidelbergers of the Boer War, pp.15, 19, 99.

2 Hobhouse, i, p.38; Spies, Methods of Barbarism?, p.192; Cd 819, p.117; Cd 893, p.187; FSAR, SRC 7/1906, 16/5/1901; SRC 11/3974, 23/5/1901.

3 Cd 893, pp.184-187; Cd 819, pp.71-72, 296-9, 298.

4 Cd 819, p. 22-23232-233; Cd 893, p.184.

5 Cd 819, pp117-119, .297; Cd 893, p.185.

6 Cd 893, p.185.

7 Cd 819, pp.349-350.

8 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901; Cd 819, pp.299, 347 -350.

9 NASA, DBC 13, November 1902; DBC 11, May 1902.

10 Cd 853, pp.61-62; Cd 902, pp.68-69.

11 NASA, DBC 12, Januaary-March 1902; DBC 11, May 1902.

12 Cd 819, p. 298.

13 NASA, DBC 11, June 1902.

14 NASA,DBC 11, July 1902; DBC 13, October, November 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.