British Concentration Camps|
of the South African War
Ladysmith had been one of the towns besieged by the Boers in the early part of the war. A substantial number of British troops had been stationed there and, when they left, their barracks were used for Boer prisoners-of-war until 1902, when the men were moved to the coast. By this time the Harrismith camp inmates had become a source of irritation to Lord Kitchener and it was decided to move the entire camp over the border to Ladysmith, where the old military barracks provided easy accommodation. By early February 1902 ‘tin town’ was ready for occupation. It was particularly suitable for such recalcitrant inmates, Sir Thomas Murray, the Natal camps superintendent believed, since it was enclosed with unclimbable fencing. There were also a variety of other buildings available for hospitals, schools and other needs.1
Despite the time spent planning the transfer, in typical military fashion, the first inmates arrived with no warning. Finding a suitable superintendent proved to be difficult since those who were most suitable spoke no Dutch. ‘One must have a gentleman’, the Natal general superintendent declared. Most of the transfers took place in February 1902 but the Harrismith people went reluctantly.2 Many were reconciled to their fate, however, when they realised the pleasure of the new accommodation. ‘It is so glorious to live in a house again’, a clergyman’s wife wrote.
‘When we see the dust storms and rain coming we need not run to fasten up our tents and fix down the pins, nor need we crawl on all fours through the mud through the small openings of our tents in order to get backwards and forwards to our wooden kitchens.’
The food was good, with fresh fruit and vegetables and the people were allowed regularly into the town. Lottie Theron, the daughter of a Dutch Reformed Church minister, writing to her family in the ORC, also found the accommodation a great improvement. Her family had been allowed to bring their piano, a great boon. Lottie herself did not remain in Ladysmith for long, because she was sent to school in Stellenbosch, but she kept regular contact with her brothers and sisters. They were relieved when peace came. ‘I wish you were here to see all the children, they had a white flag and came running through the camp screaming Hurrah!’ her sister wrote.3
A young school teacher from England, Kate French, also recorded some of her experiences in Ladysmith camp. She found the climate much more bearable than Merebank’s humidity and she was struck by the ‘prim neatness’ of the camp. She commented little on her pupils but enjoyed the lively social life of the town, with dances, picnics, tennis and dinners.
The thorn in the flesh was the Superintendent. The less I say about him the better, but it is a disgrace that such men should be put in authority over anyone. Many the rows I had to have with him. Perhaps in the future he will get his deserts, if he is not already reaping them.
By the end of the war there were just over 1,000 people in Ladysmith camp. The camp attracted little attention from the authorities since health was good and the inhabitants gave no trouble. The inmates did not have to wait long to return to their homes at the end of the war. By October 1902 the camp was empty. The only delay had occurred because of shortage of food to supply the families for the journey. Although Ladysmith did not have a formal black camp, a number of people had sought refuge over the border and, by October, over 1,000 of these refugees had also been sent back to the ORC.5
E.H. Hobhouse, The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell (London, Methuen, 1902).
SRC files in the Free State Archives Repository [FSAR].
GH files in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository [PAR].
CO files in the National Archives, United Kingdom [NAUK].
Oorlogs Museum [War Museum, Bloemfontein], Manuscripts.
Private collection, Diary of Kate French.
1 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 4506, 10/1/1902; PAR, GH 793/G58d/02, GSBC 228/02, 11/1/1902.
2 PAR, GH553/G1320/01, GSBC 607/01, 3/2/1902; FSAR, SRC 19/7498, 11/2/1902.
3 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.301; OM 6344/57, p.1 OM 6344/46, p.3.
4 Diary of Kate French, p.4.
5 PAR, GH 553/G456/03 GSBC 456/1903, 6/5/1902; NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 40471, 3/9/1902; 45246, 8/10/1902, 45317, 2/10/1902.
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.