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


Kimberley camp was located in the Cape Colony on the Cape-ORC border but formed part of the ORC system. As one of the besieged towns, Kimberley had suffered severely from the war and there was little sympathy in the town for the camp inmates, especially the families of the Cape rebels who were housed there. Kimberley was a flat, hot town, always short of water and notoriously unhealthy. The camp itself, located on de Beers property in Newton, on the outskirts of the town, was inches deep in loose, sandy soil.1

Some kind of camp probably came into being in the early stages of the war for relief had to be found for destitute Boers from Griqualand West as early as December 1899.2 The formal camp, however, was set up by the town commandant on 4 January 1901 and run by Major Wright and the men of the Kimberley Regiment. Emily Hobhouse was contemptuous of Wright, a colonial volunteer rather than a regular soldier, whom she described as a ‘coarse, lazy, indifferent old man’ who did no work and left his son to run the camp. The result was a dirty, smelly camp where whooping cough and measles were rife and there was almost no medical attention.3 ‘Undesirable’ Cape rebel families, who were ‘not refugees in the true acceptance of the term’, were mixed with people from the Free State, the Transvaal and Bechuanaland.

Under military management disorder prevailed in Kimberley. In the beginning the Free State families were rationed differently from the Cape rebels and appear to have been subject to different regulations. A weak superintendent usually meant arbitrary treatment of the people with the result that the Kimberley women were amongst the most bitter that Emily Hobhouse encountered. As early as February 1901 the women petitioned the British government: ‘On account of carelessness, bad management, and ill-treatment, it is now the second time that we are drenched through and through by rain, which caused our children, already sick with measles, whooping cough, and fever, to become dangerously ill’, they wrote and urged that they be allowed to return to their homes.4

By February 1901, when the civilian camp administration was formed in the ORC, it was clear that all was not well in Kimberley. Finally Sydney Schutte, who subsequently became the first civilian superintendent, was sent by the ORC chief superintendent, Captain Trollope, to find out what was going on. Schutte’s brief, at this stage, was to concern himself only with the ORC people. Emily Hobhouse thought this absurd. She wrote to her brother, ‘Isn’t it ridiculous to split the camp in that way? They urge economy, won’t give soap or mattresses, then go and pay two Superintendents and two doctors and so forth and £500 for a barbed-wire fence, which anybody determined to escape could easily cut through’.5

This divided authority was clearly impractical and the presence of the Cape rebel families was an ongoing worry. At first the authorities considered moving the Free State families to a new camp on the Modder River but, in the end, Kimberley was incorporated into the ORC system.6 At this stage, the camp was not large, consisting of a total of between 717 and 762 people at the beginning of April 1901 (since some people lived in Kimberley, Major Wright was uncertain about the numbers). The camp grew quite rapidly, however, as scattered groups from Warrenton and other places were brought in. Some families continued to live in Kimberley, having been certified as medically unfit for tent life.7 By June, as more people, black and white, poured in, Kimberley was suffering from the chronic lack of tents that all the camps endured, and consequent overcrowding. By July Kimberley camp had nearly 4,000 whites and over 1,000 blacks and the authorities felt they could take no more. Plans were made to establish an extension at Orange River Station.8

Little thought had been given to black refugees but by April they, too, were being brought into Kimberley in substantial numbers. By June 1901 their numbers had risen to 900, mainly from the Boshof, Jacobsdal and Petrusburg districts, with another 700 to 800 expected. An uncertificated doctor was appointed to care for their health.9 While the authorities struggled to provide for the white camp inmates, it was decided that the blacks should grow their own food. The Deputy Administrator asked De Beers Company for land to cultivate, to which the directors agreed but they were concerned about the lack of water. They suggested instead that De Beers land in the ORC be used, where there was a better water supply. Unfortunately the area was open to enemy attack and the DA was doubtful that the army would allow any farming so far from a military centre. Shortly after that the black camp in Kimberley passed into the control of the new administration under Major de Lotbinière and farming seems to have commenced shortly after.10

When Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp in December 1901, he described this complicated place in some detail. The ORC authorities had taken charge of the Free State people on 10 March 1901 and the whole camp had been transferred to ORC civilian control on 1 May. The families of the Cape rebels were kept in an enclosed area, surrounded by a barbed wire fence and guarded by sentries. The rest of the camp was unenclosed and divided into regional sections such as the Boshof, Fauresmith, Petrusburg and Hoopstad sections for the ORC, and a separate Transvaal section.11 When Schutte was replaced as superintendent by Captain J. Viner Johnson in November 1901, the latter was eager to abolish this regional system, which he believed to be one reason for the discontent in the camp. Indeed, he was in favour of some social engineering:

It must be borne in mind that intermarriage has joined together very closely in most cases the whole of the inhabitants of every district   and that within reasonable areas the population is virtually only one big family. I consider for our own security in the future that everything possible should be done to break up these communities   and I suggest that as a beginning, translocation, especially towards their own districts, should be stopped. If at the cessation of hostilities these people are allowed to swarm back to their farms, I do not believe that existence will be possible for the British settler who may find himself either owner or tenant of a farm surrounding by relatives of the dispossessed previous owner.’

Viner Johnson feared that neighbours would plot together, to the detriment of the Imperial government and that they would ‘perpetuate their “esprit de corps”, which it must be our policy to quietly extinguish as far as possible’. Removal to the coast, he considered, would have a great moral effect on the burghers, discouraging them in their belief that the Boer republics could be restored.12

This sense, that Kimberley was a discontented camp, prevailed right through the war. The mortality was one reason. Like Bloemfontein and Irene, measles struck early and deaths increased rapidly in the early months of 1901, exacerbated by the cold winter and the poor quality of the overcrowded tents. A severe shortage of medical staff made it difficult to take effective action and, for a time, Kimberley was reliant on unqualified people. Hospital accommodation, in the usual marquees, was also unsatisfactory and, when Dr Westerfield was appointed in April 1901, he took the unusual step of threatening resignation if wooden huts were not provided for the children with measles. The Kimberley superintendent forwarded Westerfield’s demands reluctantly but they were acceded to.13

The pattern of deaths in Kimberley was slightly unusual for the graphs indicate clearly that Kimberley was a relatively healthy camp once the initial measles epidemic had passed. The fact that the measles epidemic peaked as early as July 1901 is not surprising for Kimberley was one of the first towns to house a camp on the route of the march of the British troops to the north. While the troops themselves did not suffer from measles, we know that some of the Boers at nearby Paardeberg suffered from measles and the troops brought the kind of confusion in their wake, which encouraged the spread of disease.

The graph showing the death rates in Kimberley confirms that mortality in Kimberley was generally below average once the early measles epidemic had ended. (The mortality of men at the end can be ignored for it reflects a very small number of deaths in a small population.)

The hospital, however, remained disorganised, with the staff at odds with one another. The conditions under which the nurses lived may partly explain their apathetic attitude to their work for their quarters were bare and cheerless. They had no place to eat or anyone to cook for them so they had to snatch their meals when they could and the Dutch ‘probationers’ ate on the wards and continued to live with their families. When he visited the hospital about September 1901, Pratt Yule urged a considerable reorganisation of the staff, including a greater interest taken in the young Dutch women so that they could feel the value and importance of what they were doing.14 Both Dr Kendal Franks and the Ladies Committee concurred that staff conditions were unacceptable. Doctors and nurses battling epidemics should be properly fed in comfortable conditions, they argued.15 Mess conditions were so poor, in fact, that Dr Trumper, newly appointed from Britain, was moved to complain to the British Medical Journal, to the indignation of the camp authorities.

Sir,   May I ask you through your paper to warn any MO who may think of coming out as MOs to these camps not to do so unless they have distinct assurance in writing from the CO that the tents will be furnished and that the rations advertised will be cooked and served? The rations offered us are flour and raw meat, with a little coffee, etc, and there are no facilities whatever for getting them cooked. The position of civil surgeon under the WO is, therefore, better from the point of view of comfort as well as of pay. As it is very doubtful whether the district surgeonships to be offered us at the end of the war will be worth having, I should advise men thinking of coming out to have a definite understanding with the authorities that their return passage will be given if required.   I am, etc., DELUDED. RC, Kimberley, SA’.16

Viner Johnson was instructed to take no notice of the complaint but, in retaliation, Dr Trumper was hastily moved on to Brandfort camp. Action was at last taken over the discomfort of the lives of the medical staffs, however.17

Conditions began to improve a little when new medical staff came in. Kimberley was served by one of the Dutch volunteer nurses, Nurse Geijer who, like her compatriots, did sterling work. We have a rare record of her early experiences, published in the British Nursing Record. Measles was raging, she reported, exacerbated by the extreme cold, from which she also suffered. She lived on the same rations as the camp inmates, including a cupful of ground coffee and a cupful of sugar once a week. She often failed to get meat and the camp superintendent eventually decided to pay her 5s a day, so that she could supplement her inadequate food. She was deeply touched by the suffering of the people, especially when a tent fire resulted in serious burns to a family. ‘So one sad event here succeeds another’, she wrote. ‘Not to be affected by what is suffered here one’s heart must be of stone’. Geijer was not the only volunteer in Kimberley camp for Misses Monkhouse and Mellors, from Emily Hobhouse’s ‘South African Women and Children Distress Fund’, also worked in the camp for some months. They caused little trouble but, the Ladies Committee felt, they lacked management ability.18

A later nurse, recruited in Britain, also wrote home about her experiences in Kimberley camp. She was particularly struck by the young Boer women who served as ‘probationers’ in the hospital. ‘Some of them have only been nursing a month; they are pleasant and obliging girls, but have not yet learned that they must not sleep on night duty, and must be careful to obey orders’, she wrote. Clearly she ticked them off on occasion. ‘I found the other night a poor boy having brandy hourly instead of every six hours; but the flaccidity of these people is simply marvellous. They seem to have taken correction pleasantly’. She found the camp inmates friendly, greeting her with a ‘cheery good morning’. But the camp, on the road, was noisy and her tent, her only place for relaxation, unbearably hot at 92o.19

The Kimberley commandant, who seems to have taken an interest in the camp, was most concerned when Dr Westerfield resigned. The RAMC doctors were forbidden to work in the camps and he could not get civilian doctors on the pay that was offered, but he also suspected that the superintendent, Schutte, was being obstructive. The whole hospital system needed to be drastically reorganised, he felt, and he begged the chief superintendent to allow him to offer a higher rate of pay. By this time doctors had been recruited from England and one was to be sent immediately to Kimberley, but the chief superintendent was not pleased. ‘I have already sanctioned a considerable expenditure for Kimberley’, he complained, ‘and I can only consider that the fault lies with Dr Westerfield if the hospital is unsatisfactory’. Subsequently Dr William Woodward was appointed SMO. Although he gave sterling service through the epidemic, he was not unproblematic for he also seemed at times to be at odds with the authorities.20

Ill health also dogged the medical staff. At one stage, in January 1902, both Miss Mellor and Miss Monkhouse fell ill with fever and Miss Mellor had to be moved to Kimberley hospital. At the same time Miss Clark and Miss Casewell, both nurses, and Miss Reid, the assistant camp matron, were also down with fever and Dr Woodward had been admitted to Kimberley Hospital as well. Dr Woodward, in fact, never recovered sufficiently to return to the camp. His deputy, Dr Ellis, resorted to ‘very second class drinking bars’, together with the assistant superintendent, and resigned in February 1902. Nor had the hospital improved for, as late as the end of March, Inspector Tonkin commented that it was not well conducted.21

The appointment of Dr John Hunter in February 1902 should have relieved the situation for he was clearly a capable man. But it did not, for he clashed at once with the superintendent, Viner Johnson. Viner Johnson considered Hunter ‘carping and didactic’, interfering in matters beyond his jurisdiction. Hunter, for his part, thought that the care of the sick took precedence and issued hourly demands for sanitary work to be done. Furious exchanges flew back and forth between the superintendent, the SMO and the chief superintendent in Bloemfontein. It did not help Viner Johnson’s position that Hunter’s brother, Craig, was also a doctor in the camp. Reading between the lines, it would seem that Hunter was efficient but arrogant and ambitious, while Viner Johnson was conscientious but overwhelmed by the red tape of the administration. In the end Viner Johnson suspended Hunter and Inspector Cole Bowen was sent to investigate. The authorities were inclined to sympathise with Viner Johnson’s position and the Hunter brothers were transferred to other camps. Even then the difficulties did not end for Hunter’s replacement, Dr Alexander Frew, also clashed with Viner Johnson, this time over the camp matron.22

A second reason why Kimberley seemed a discontented camp was related to the unwillingness of the men to do any work, as they did in most other camps. Viner Johnson complained at one point that the men in Kimberley camp were unlike those in Bloemfontein, where he had previously been. ‘They are largely graziers, of nomadic instinct and are totally averse to work, and owe and practice obedience to no man’, he explained. Fortunately the new assistant superintendent, Randle, had an influence over the Boers that was ‘almost miraculous’. ‘He gets a lot of work out of them and furthermore it appears to be done willingly and above all he is quite popular’.23

In October 1901 William Gostling of Springfontein camp was asked to go to Kimberley to investigate relations between the new General Officer Commanding, Colonel King Hall, and Schutte, for the men’s failure to work continued to be an issue. The problem hinged partly on the fact that the men could obtain paid work in the town and were reluctant, consequently, to do unpaid work in the camp. The Ladies Committee also noted the freedom people had to go into the town, although there was a store in the camp. They only had to obtain passes if they wanted to go to the theatre or a party. In the event, Gostling did not get to Kimberley for he fell ill (and later died). When Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp in November 1901, he also commented on the men’s refusal to work. They would not make bricks, they would not make a vegetable garden. Franks tried hard to discover the reason and concluded that the presence of the very bitter Cape rebels was one cause of discontent. The other disincentive was the ‘injudicious and tactless’ manner of the superintendent. ‘He is too familiar with them to command respect, and too curt to gain their affection’, Franks believed.24

Franks considered that the democratic management of the camp was an associated weakness, for elected committees for each section met weekly with the camp administration to discuss problems. Franks did not think much of the system. ‘This is the first Camp in which I have seen the elective system tried, and it is the only Camp in which I have found the Burghers unable to exercise the authority with which they have been invested. It is a system which in these Camps is bound to fail. These Burgher officials feel that they derive their authority from the people, and to the people they must therefore be subservient. It would be much better for a strong Superintendent to select his own men carefully and to appoint them himself’.25

A third critical problem in Kimberley camp related to the presence of the Cape rebel families. The military regarded them as prisoners and treated them accordingly. The superintendent found it impossible to run a camp in which some of the inmates were treated more harshly than others and was constantly at odds with the local commandant over the matter. For some time the ORC deputy administrator debated with the Cape governor the possibility of sending the Cape rebels to a camp at Port Alfred but nothing came of this suggestion. Later on Cathcart was mooted as a site for the Cape rebels but this, too, was abandoned.26

People continued to work in the town, the young women as domestic servants and the boys on the debris heaps of the diamond mines and such people often lived in the town but continued to receive some rations. This was not a situation that the camp authorities liked and they usually refused to feed town refugees. They were often a nuisance for they tended to return to the camps as their money ran out, making extra work for the camp staff. They recognised, however, that Kimberley was something of an exception and they accepted Viner Johnson’s argument that the money was really necessary to the most indigent.27

Given the growing disillusionment with Schutte, it was not surprising that he was replaced by Captain Viner Johnson who, despite his difficulties with the doctors, seems to have improved camp conditions. When the competent Mr Cole Bowen inspected the camp at the beginning of February 1902, he was impressed by the improvement in morale. It spoke very strongly for the ‘able administrative powers’ of Viner Johnson, Cole Bowen considered. The Ladies Committee also observed an improvement. On the occasion of their first visit in September 1901 they had been critical of the overcrowding and general mismanagement. Conditions were much better on their return in November 1901, they felt. The measles epidemic was no longer raging, hospital accommodation had improved and the medical staff was now adequate. People seemed more cheerful, with the women singing as they worked in the washing places. The appearance of the camp had improved with little gardens planted round the tents.28

To the last, however, Kimberley remained an unhappy camp. As late as May 1902, when Dr Parry Edwards inspected the camp, he considered it ‘backward’. He attributed this state to ‘the continual quarrels and petty nonsense that goes on amongst the staff’. The superintendent admitted that there were two parties amongst the camp staff but could see no way of bringing about peace until the parties were separated.29

Repatriation took a long time from Kimberley camp, perhaps because the camp population was so diverse, although the majority of the Transvalers had been sent away earlier in 1902. One difficulty was that there was no Repatriation Board in the district and many of the families had to make their own arrangements to return home. Others, with nowhere to go, refused to leave. By the end of December 1902 there were still more than 200 people in the camp, mainly Boshof people. The camp was eventually closed on 9 January 1903.30


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

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

E.H. Hobhouse, Emily Hobhouse. Boer War Letters, ed by R. van Reenen (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1984).

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

HC files in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA].

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

Dr Kendal Franks report: Cd 394, pp.11-16.

Ladies Committee report: pp. 62-69.

1 FSAR, SRC 13/4761.

2 NAUK, CO 879/64/634, 2429, 29/12/1899; 128, 12/12/1900.

3 Cd 934, p.11; FSAR, SRC 3/605, 11/3/1901; van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.89.

4 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.92; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.220; FSAR, SRC 3/541, 11/3/1901; SRC 3/674, 1/3/1901.

5 FSAR, SRC 3/605, 11/3/1901; van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.91.

6 FSAR, SRC 4/954, 29/3/1901; SRC 5/1264, 13/4/1901.

7 Cd 819, p.41; FSAR, SRC 4/1110, 1/4/1901; SRC 4/1002, 2/4/1901; SRC 6/1729, 20/5/1901; van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.103.

8 FSAR, SRC 9/2820, 20/6/1901; SRC 10/3933, 23/7/1901.

9 FSAR, SRC 4/978, 1/4/1901; SRC 9/2979, 23/6/1901; SRC 9/2935, 25/6/1901.

10 FSAR, CO 30/2770/01, 3/8/1901; CO 32/3071/01, 25/8/1901.

11 Cd 934, pp.11, 12.

12 FSAR, SRC 16/6422, 29/11/1901.

13 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.193; FSAR, SRC 4/1004, 30/3/1901; SRC 9/3340, 13/7/1901; SRC 9/3231, 19/7/1901; SRC 6/1721, 2/5/1901; SRC 7/1869, 13/5/1901; SRC 8/2530, 1/6/1901.

14 FSAR, SRC 13/4761.

15 Cd 893, p.64; Cd 943, p.15.

16 FSAR, SRC 16/6543, 7/12/1901.

17 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 4537, 10/1/1902.

18 The Nursing Record, 13/7/1901, p.34; Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, pp.193-194; Cd 943, p.16.

19 The Hospital Nursing Record, 26/4/1902, p.56.

20 FSAR, SRC 10/3937, 20/7/1901; SRC 10/3491, 21/7/1901; SRC13/4982, 18/9/1901.

21 FSAR, SRC 36/A720, 27/1/1902; SRC 38/A883, 22/2/1902; SRC 21/7988, 21/3/1902.

22 FSAR, SRC 22/8123, 3/4/1902; SRC 22/8274, 21/4/1902.

23 FSAR, SRC 22/8123, 3/4/1902.

24 FSAR, SRC 14/5432, 12/10/901; SRC 15/6004, 2/11/1901; Cd 893, p.63; Cd 943, p.16.

25 Cd 943, p.13.

26 NASA, HC 31, 21/2/1902; FSAR, SRC 24/8497, 11/5/1902.

27 FSAR, SRC 19/7263, 20/1/1902.

28 FSAR, SRC 19/7508, 5/2/1902; Cd 893, pp.67-69.

29 FSAR, SRC 23/8450, 5/5/1902.

30 FSAR, SRC 30/10119, 22/10/1902; SRC 31/10322, 18/11/1902; SRC 32/10565, 27/12/1902; SRC 32/10665, 17/1/1903; SRC 32/10637, 17/1/1903.

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.