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


Although it was a small camp, Heilbron was unusual in several respects. This area in the northern Free State might appear flat and uninteresting – the Heilbron district commissioner complained that nearby Viljoen’s Drift was ‘Just a lot of tin houses on both sides of the Railway the whole in the midst of a sandy desert’ - but it was the heart of the maize growing area. Coal mining took place at nearby Viljoen’s Drift and the Vereeniging Estates included relatively prosperous black tenant farmers. In July 1900 the newly-appointed assistant district commissioner reported that there were about five hundred Africans employed on the mines as well. They were ‘unruly’, he complained. Uneasiness about the black population continued with reports of ‘impertinence’ towards unprotected women; some farm labourers were unwilling to work, it was said.1

The Heilbron district felt the uncomfortable weight of the British presence shortly after the army took the town on 7 June 1900. As in Winburg, empty houses were looted by the soldiers and food was restricted for families whose men were on commando. As Boer activity increased, the country districts had to be evacuated, while nearby Frankfort was burnt by the British, necessitating the removal of these families as well. The refugees were housed in empty dwellings in Heilbron and were sometimes uncomfortably overcrowded. Mrs Henry Vorster of Frankfort noted that she had to share a house with seven other families while Mrs Theron had two rooms for herself and her eight children, in a house already occupied by five other families. Mrs Ellie de Kock described the plight of these early refugees. ‘In December 1900 they brought the first batch of poor women and children into our village. . . . There they stood like lost sheep at the mercy of our enemies, with only a small bundle of bedding or clothes – no food, no pots or pans, some not even a mug to drink out of.’ Many of the houses where they were placed had been damaged by the soldiers, lacking doors and windows. Food was expensive and the only fountain was unable to provide enough water for the growing numbers. Only after the town became impossibly overcrowded were tents erected.2

Blacks were also brought into Heilbron. Initially they were housed in the town location and the superintendent of the Heilbron camp reported at the beginning of March 1901 that there were over 300 there. He recommended the establishment of a black camp. About forty of the men were employed in the military camp. By April the number in the camp had risen to 1,264. ‘I have caused them to build sod and stone huts, and given them all available gal[vanise]d iron to cover same’, the superintendent reported. Unfortunately he had no further material and requested second-hand tents. As more poured in, however, their situation became increasingly difficult. The local Officer Commanding urged that no more be sent, to little avail. Not surprisingly, the health of the inmates declined and the local district surgeon refused to attend them at the pay he was offered.3

The black camp, Fairview, became an increasing source of friction between the OC and the superintendent as guerilla commandos harassed the town. In a file headed ‘Fairy tales manufactured by the Resident Magistrate and the DS’ the different parties spelt out their concerns. Because the Boers were coming so close to the black camp and removing any horses, the camp staff, including the medical officer, refused to go out to the camp. The OC, the superintendent claimed, declined to send out a piquet and would not allow the black inmates into the town so they had to collect their rations at the piquet lines. The OC retorted that the facts had been grossly misrepresented. The camp site was a beautiful one, he declared, fully protected by British guns. The ‘natives’ got all they wanted and were perfectly safe. ‘The civil medical officer does not like the trouble of going out there and neglected this duty so much that I had to order him to go out daily and render a report to me. I think he should be changed’, he stated. The head office response was to replace all the senior staff and to establish a dispensary in the camp. By July the number of black camp inmates had risen to 3,000 and, since they were not allowed to wander far from the camp, fuel was inadequate. The Heilbron superintendent requisitioned for coal for them instead.4

There were other indications that the plight of the black camp inmates was serious. In July the local Wesleyan minister, the Rev. Robert Matterson wrote to the chief superintendent, asking for clothing.

‘Most native refugees have had to buy or build their own shelters. They are not allowed to come into town for necessaries and have to buy from specially licensed dealers at a considerable advance on town prices, and they have received no clothing however impoverished and destitute, except in a few cases, through private charity. Their treatment is a great contrast to the generous way in which Boer needs or professions of needs, are met. I cannot believe until officially informed that this is the intention of the administration. It outrages British ideas of humanity and justice, and were all the facts known, would arouse strong indignation.’

The camp officials denied that the position of the inmates was so parlous, arguing that most earned wages and could well afford to buy clothes. Since prices were controlled under martial law, the hawker was not allowed to overcharge. Blankets were issued to the most needy. Matterson stuck to his guns, insisting that help was needed, but he probably got little more from the camp authorities.5 The black camp disappears from the records after this, when it was incorporated into the new native refugee camp administration.

The Ladies Committee visited Heilbron camp on 22 October 1901. At that stage there were still 1,655 people living in houses in the town, while 1,524 were in tents. While the camp itself was clean and well run, although short of water, town families lived in accommodation ranging from a church vestry, a hotel and a store to ‘what must have been intended as a refuge for Kaffirs or pigs’ and all were overcrowded and lacked privacy. The administration was fairly good and, in one respect the camp inmates were better off than other civilians for they received some meat while the rest had had none for two months.6

The severe overcrowding and the shortage of water had the inevitable result, especially in a town inhabited by soldiers from lethal Bloemfontein and Kroonstad, for they may well have brought typhoid fever with them. As early as February 1901 an epidemic of the disease broke out; by the 21st there were fifty-one cases, although no-one had yet died.7 The epidemic dragged on for weeks although, fortunately, mortality was low, perhaps because so many were still living in houses. Indeed, the town and camp were fairly healthy until families arrived from Kroonstad in August 1901, bringing measles with them. Even then, the disease was eliminated quite quickly from the tents where people could be isolated, but it was much harder to eradicate from the town where it took a bitter toll. The whole matter, an example of the way in which the disease spread, became a cause célèbre, reaching the ears of the Colonial Office in Britain and leading to a considerable outcry.8

The measles epidemic was the primary cause of death in Heilbron and, as both graphs below indicate, it lasted for several months, into 1902. The constant movement of people probably explains why the medical authorities found it so difficult to put an end to the epidemic.

The graph showing the death rate in Heilbron confirms the importance of the death rate. There is some indication that the mortality of women rose in the summer months of 1901 to 1902, usually the result of typhoid.

Heilbron was unusual also in that, for the most part, the doctors were drawn from the local medical profession. Dr Tregaskis, a town practitioner, was present throughout the life of the camp. The local district surgeon also attended town inmates but he was often unco-operative. Later on Dr Spong from Britain joined the team. Tregaskis complained regularly about his conditions of work. Civil surgeons employed in the military camps, he pointed out, were much better fed. Not only did they receive larger quantities, but they also got jam, potatoes, rum, coal, candles, forage and pepper. The pay was ‘ridiculous’ and the work during the typhoid epidemic demanding. ‘Under any circumstances I should feel badly used at being supposed to live on this exceedingly small scale of rations but under the present state of affairs it is impossible. As you know, the local storekeepers have nothing to sell & one cannot live without light & fuel at least’, he complained. He was given nothing but additional forage for his horse, however. Tregaskis was even more indignant when he heard that some camp doctors were receiving £500 a year. But this was for resident medical officers and Tregaskis was reluctant to give up his private practice entirely. Dr Clayton, the district surgeon, was even more unwilling to make any financial sacrifices. The solution, the superintendent suggested, was to move all the inmates living in houses into the tented camp. But there were insufficient tents to do this.9

Madeleine Allen, the first nurse, who was untrained, seems to have been a disagreeable woman who disliked the Boers. ‘I would like to know if you are as sick of refugees as I am’, she wrote to the chief superintendent in Bloemfontein. ‘Though I have had but a short time with them it seems ages. I venture to approach you with regard to my quarters rations etc. I came here to find that no provision whatever had been made for me, in fact I was told that a nurse was not needed at all. You may easily imagine my feelings. Lilliputians are not in it. However I thought I should make the best of it till I could hear from you what I’m to do. I’m indeed sorry to add to your worries but I’d like to know where I am.’ In the event she stayed on although the superintendent would have preferred a trained nurse. He was relieved when Nurse Allen eventually left. ‘I have nothing to say against Nurse Allen with regard to the work she did, but rather to her mode of doing it; . . . Her chief fault lies in an unhappy knack of rubbing people including the patients the wrong way’. Other staff also complained of her ‘continual and needless scoldings’ and were appalled when they heard she was to return. Fortunately she was relocated to Bethulie.10

The first superintendent, W. Wagner, came from Worcester in the Cape Colony. This alone placed him in a difficult position for the British tended to regard colonial camp officials as second-rate. When Dr Pratt Yule, the colonial medical officer of health, put in an adverse report, in a rather garbled response, Wagner protested.

‘With regard to the report itself, I deem it due to myself to take exception to some observations made, which appear to me to be unjust, and perhaps misleading to those not conversant with the customs and habits of the people now being detained in the Refugee Camps. In Sect II Dr Yule describes the tents as “dirty, ill kept, close and stuffy” and again in Sect IX the rooms are put down as being “kept in a filthy condition”. These terms would tend to convey to an outsider the impression, that to make one’s way through such tents or rooms and remain unsoiled, a certain amount of dirt would have to be avoided; whereas Dr Yule, as the exponent of European views on hygiene, merely wishes to point out bad ventilation, unswept floors and perhaps a store of cow dung fuel in a corner:   (this last a most invaluable product in this part and consequently stored away and where mud floors prevail the rule is, to smear them with cow dung, so as to keep them clean and tidy); conditions, which are looked upon by the ordinary Boer as a matter of course and which having been indulged in by him and his ancestors for many years past, do not appear to have prevented him from being healthy and thriving. Consequently he [the Boer] cannot understand that the non ventilation of rooms and an ill swept floor are conducive to sickness, and it will take some little time to educate him up to this point and make him adopt this, as he has already had to do, other sanitary precautions, to which he was a total stranger, previous to coming into a Refugee Camp’.11

Wagner appears to have been a conscientious man who was kindly disposed to the plight of the Boers but lacked the personality to resist interfering local commandants or to impose his authority on the camp people. The result was constant friction; the Boer men refused to perform manual labour when they were taunted by the women for doing ‘kaffir’ work, while the Officer Commanding repeatedly overruled Wagner’s decisions.

There are other indications that Wagner was an unconventional superintendent, at least from the imperial point of view. When Dr T. Whiteside Hime visited Heilbron camp, he was astonished to find the superintendent’s office walls adorned with portraits of Boer leaders.

‘I asked where the King's portrait was. Mr Wagner replied “in my pocket”. I told him it was not usual to adorn a govt office with portraits of the enemies of the govt and exclude the portraits of all loyalists. Mr Wagner began to fence and argue. I proceeded to the Provost Marshal and informed him of the fact, and he had the portraits removed. From my personal experience of Mr Wagner it was unmistakable that he regards the govt as culpable and responsible for every difficulty affecting the health and comfort of the refugees. His tone in replying to complaints by refugees was – “Alas! I have done my best to rectify what you complain of, but I can get nothing from Capt Trollope. It's no use asking for anything.”

Wagner responded privately to Trollope, denying that he had used such words. He had received nothing but kindness from the chief superintendent, he said.12

Some Boer women were undoubtedly recalcitrant. Initially Wagner believed the white inmates to be content apart from a few ‘firebrands’ who were ‘exceedingly bitter’. But discipline reared its head when Wagner sent a group of women and children away from Heilbron. Reprimanded by the chief superintendent, he explained that one woman was a ‘notoriously bad woman who enticed soldiers into camp’ while the other was insubordinate – ‘on the morning she left she told the Asst Supt that we could send her through h-ll and she would still come out a true Afrikaner at the other end’. Such women, he felt, needed to be removed entirely from the camp.13

Unhappiness with Heilbron camp continued to rumble on. In February 1902 the Provost Marshall in Bloemfontein complained that the Heilbron inmates were allowed to roam the town with no restrictions; that the wives of men still on commando taunted the men who had surrendered and that, since it was easy to do so, a number of men had escaped to the commandos. The problem seemed to centre on the work. Wagner complained that he had orders that all able-bodied men must do three hours work a day, in which he was supported by head office. He admitted that some had refused to perform manual labour when women jeered at them. The chief superintendent was bound to support his staff but he believed that other camps did not have the same difficulties – a point with which the Heilbron OC disagreed. By this stage, in 1902, the camp authorities increasingly saw the camps as an educational tool. For Captain Trollope, now that they had the Boers under their control, the British were able to

‘instil into them the great benefit derived from hard work (an unknown quantity among them prior to the war) and with this object in view, an order was made making it compulsory for all male residents to do at least 3 hours work a day. This undoubtedly tends to better discipline in camps than would be possible if the men were allowed to do nothing but brood over the present state of affairs, to say nothing of the habit of laziness it would cultivate in the few and increase in the many, which the administration is endeavouring to overcome if possible’.14

Privately the chief superintendent thought that Wagner was to blame. ‘Dutch officials in charge of refugee camps are not a success’, he noted. ‘An Englishman would not have stood the interference’. But he recognised that Wagner also suffered from the constant interference of the OC, to whom the Boers brought all their complaints and who constantly overruled the superintendent. The affair finally reached the ears of Major Goold Adams, the Deputy Administrator, who took up the matter with the General Officer Commanding:

‘Unfortunately I have not visited Heilbron camp myself and therefore cannot speak from personal experience, but I learn from my officers that the whole cause of the present undesirable features in connection with the camp and town are due to the difficulties thrown in the way of civil administration by the military authorities on the spot   some avoidable and some unavoidable. Ever since the refugees were taken over by myself the various commandants have insisted upon exercising considerable powers over the refugees in conflict with the jurisdiction of the Supt, this resulting in the people themselves being unable to understand who their superior actually was. Some complaints being made to one and some to the other, both officers have adjudicated, leading, of course, to hopeless confusion. This state of affairs was clearly avoidable, yet it still goes on as is shown from the minute of the Provost Marshall, who most unquestionably have received the information which has led him to write in the strain he has done, from the present Commandant.’

One solution would have been to establish a more conventional camp but the military had objected on strategic grounds while the medical officers believed that, even in overcrowded conditions, the houses were healthier. Nor would the military allow any permanent structures (like a hospital) in the tented camp. Goold Adams had also tried to moved Heilbron camp elsewhere but, again, he had been prevented by the military. Ultimately the only solution appeared to be to move most of the Heilbron to the new Cape camps at East London, Uitenhage and Kabusie.15

The ending of the war brought its own problems. The return of men from the commandos and the prisoner-of-war camps, combined with the return of the families from the coast camps meant a huge influx of people. Most camps lacked enough accommodation for their tents were, by this stage, old and worn. C.W. Adamson, who had replaced Wagner as superintendent, was extremely concerned about how he could manage, especially as he had to isolate all new arrivals.16 Repatriation also brought new work, with complicated and detailed forms on the farms and their inhabitants to be completed and the Repatriation Board to be consulted, before anyone could return home. By July most had returned from East London and, as each family was sent away with a tent, tent accommodation began to run out once more. To his dismay, the superintendent was also told that, at this late stage, he should move the camp to a fresher and more sanitary site. He considered the proposal a waste of money and urged that people simply be sent home more rapidly. As in so many cases, food was a problem to the last. Meat for the repatriating families was often not available and what there was, was regularly condemned. Vegetables were in short supply and scurvy was a constant worry.17

Repatriation did not take place as rapidly as Adamson hoped. At the end of December there were still 200 people left in the camp, including two in hospital, possibly suffering from typhoid fever. By this time most of the equipment had been disposed of, however and the camp was finally closed down early in January 1903.18


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

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

CO files in the National Archives, United Kingdom [NAUK].

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp. 89-93

1 FSAR, MG 3, 5/8/1900; MG 3, Report for July 1900; Report for September 1900.

2 Hobhouse, War Without Glamour, p.18, 101, 109.

3 FSAR, SRC 3/392, 1/3/1901; SRC3/729, 9/3/1901; SRC 5/1399, 13/4/1901; SRC 6/1797, 3/5/1901; SRC 7/1904, 6/5/1901; SRC 6/1824, 10/5/1901.

4 FSAR, SRC 7/2259, 22/5/1901; SRC 8/2306, 1/6/1901; SRC 9/3155, 11/7/1901

5 FSAR, SRC 9/3226, 12/7/1901.

6 Cd 893, pp. 89-93.

7 FSAR, SRC 2/447, 21/2/1901.

8 FSAR, SRC 11/4213, 14/8/1901; SRC 12/4558, 13/8/1901; SRC 12/4569, 2/9/1901; NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 4229, 9/11/1901; 4537, 10/1/1902; Cd 893, p. 91.

9 FSAR, SRC 3/761, 18/3/1901; SRC 13/5143, 26/9/1901; SRC 14/5458, 10/10/1901.

10 FSAR, SRC 4/914, 22/3/1901; SRC 13/4925, 9/9/1901; SRC A926, 1/3/1902.

11 FSAR, SRC 13/5033, 19/9/1901.

12 FSAR, SRC 18/7139, 16/1/1902; SRC 19/7253, 7/1/1902.

13 FSAR, CO 30/2762/01, 29/7/1901; SRC 19/7316, 18/1/1902; SRC 20/7630, 27/2/1902.

14 FSAR, SRC 20/7561, 4/2/1902.

15 FSAR, SRC 20/7563, 18/2/1902; SRC 20/7647, 26/2/1902

16 FSAR, SRC 24/8556, 18/5/1902; SRC 25/8786, 9/6/1902.

17 FSAR, SRC 23/8433, 15/5/1902; SRC 25/8833, 12/6/1902; SRC 26/9115, 10/7/1902; SRC 27/9554, 6/8/1902; SRC 27/9554, 6/8/1902; SRC 27/9613, 22/8/1902; SRC 27/9627, 16/8/1902; SRC 28/9631, 21/8/1902.

18 FSAR, SRC 32/10575, 24/12/1902; SRC 33/10775, 23/2/1903.

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.