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

Orange River

Orange River camp, as the name suggests, was on the banks of the Orange River, in the Cape Colony, near a small station of the same name and not very far from Hopetown in the Kimberley area. It is now on the farm Doornbult, where the only surviving camp site still exists, along with a cemetery which has been untouched by later memorial organisations. The camp seems to have originated as a small gathering of people who were fed for some months by the military. In April 1901 Emily Hobhouse remarked that she was able to visit this tiny camp, consisting of five or six women and twenty-four children.1 In July 1901 Colonel Williams attempted to send to Kimberley a group of 450 people he had rounded up, but Kimberley refused to take them because of lack of space. They were added to the original group at Orange River Station, still under military control. After some negotiations it was decided that Orange River should be taken over as a subsidiary to Kimberley camp and incorporated into the Free State system. A black camp was established at the same time.2

The new camp started uncertainly. Mr J.G. Smith was appointed as first superintendent but arrived ill with influenza. With only the floor of a railwayman’s hut to sleep on, in ‘great pain and distress of mind’ and ‘haunted by dreadful visions and most terrible despondency’, he was unable to carry on. Dr Parry Edwards, the newly-appointed doctor (who was unusually well qualified, with an MD from Dublin and a Diploma in Public Health from Cambridge University), expressed ‘great indignation’ at the hospital arrangements. Both he and the nurse objected to living in tents and resigned (this proved later to be untrue). No food had arrived. By this time, in August 1901, there were over 1,300 whites and over 1,000 blacks (only twelve of them ‘able-bodied’ men) to be provided for and the unfortunate Mr John Freund was left to pick up the pieces but lacked the authority to do so. ‘I would feel greatly obliged if you appoint me permanently or not’, he wired desperately to Bloemfontein.3

Head office in Bloemfontein needed to get the new camp sorted out for the Ladies Committee was expected soon. In mid-August Mr Edward Nowers, who was a Free State man although British in origin, was sent from Vredefort Road to take charge and complete the removal of the camp to a new site, about a mile from the river. He was dismayed by what he found – not a single book had been kept, there were no proper lists of inmates, the tents at the new site were pitched too close together, there were no latrines and the water supply was inadequate. Mr Freund, he pointed out, could not be blamed for this state of affairs. Captain Trollope, the chief superintendent in Bloemfontein was not helpful, carping at the ‘slovenly manner’ in which requisition forms were filled out.4

In the midst of this disorder, on 29 August 1901, the Ladies Committee arrived. Whatever the deficiencies, Nowers had clearly done good work in the short time available to him. Wells had been sunk, wash-houses erected and temporary latrines put up. The tents were widely spaced although some were overcrowded. The greatest deficiency was the lack of beds, which were still on order, although some enterprising inmates had arranged oil tins and corrugated iron to raise mattresses off the ground. On the whole the Ladies found the people contented, although they complained about the monotony of the ‘meat and meal’ diet and begged for some rice and vegetables. In general the Committee had the impression that the new inmates were reasonably well-to-do, although there were a handful of very poor families. The hospital had been sensibly organised under Drs Edwards and de Kock, although it lacked a trained nurse. Every attempt had been made to avoid an epidemic for isolation tents had been located beyond the railway line and fenced in with barbed wire, with only a single narrow gateway, guarded by a sentry. At the time of the Ladies’ visit, a single case of measles had broken out and the whole family had been isolated ‘in the hope of preventing the spread of a disease which is proving so fatal in other camps’.5

This hope was in vain for measles spread rapidly through the camp. The failure of the isolation camp seems to have been the direct result of military interference, for the local commandant had ordered that this place be closed and the people removed to the main camp (presumably because it was some distance from the main camp and made protection difficult). Although the numbers were not large in Orange River camp, the mortality rate was fairly high in October 1901. Nevertheless, Orange River was a healthy camp, partly because it was established so late that it was possible to control the influx of people infected with epidemic disease. There was some diphtheria but this was easily treated with antitoxin, and typhoid was an ever-present threat, but it never reached epidemic proportions.6 Despite all the care of the medical staff, there was a slight resurgence of measles in March 1902, combined with whooping cough, contributing to an unexpected rise in mortality. One unusual death was an infant, Saanam Magdaline, aged four days, who was found dead in the morning, by her mother. The doctors concluded that the child had died of asphyxiation, probably from ‘overlaying’, a not uncommon event in overcrowded homes, when the mother rolled over onto the child while they were both sleeping.7

The Ladies Committee returned to the Orange River camp on 7 November 1901. They were impressed with what they found for the camp was well established now. At the time of their second visit there was still no trained nurse in the hospital but Mrs Rutherford had managed remarkably well, they acknowledged. The young Dutch ‘probationers’ had been carefully trained, with regular lectures and examinations. The superintendent took care that they were well treated, with improved rations, a ‘simple’ uniform (provided by the Victoria League) and 2s a day pay. Dr Franks noted a few days later that there was a waiting list of 50 women wanting to nurse in the hospital. A convalescent camp ensured that people could recover fully, with decent food, before they returned to the hardships of the main camp. Soup and milk were issued to the children. Gardening, the Ladies observed, was one of the chief industries, with a good deal of land cultivated with potatoes, beans, cauliflower, mealies and onions. There was, they concluded, ‘a very satisfactory tone in this camp. The good understanding between the leading officials makes itself felt throughout the Camp’.8

Dr Kendal Franks followed the Ladies Committee a few days later. Like the Ladies Committee, he found the place orderly and contented. The men were expected to work for three hours every day, sinking wells, gardening, shoemaking and other such activities. Franks noted that the men work willingly, unlike Kimberley. He attributed this to ‘firmness’. ‘A quiet and kindly firmness is understood by the Boer, and fosters a willing obedience, where curtness and want of tact, tempered with familiarity is bound to fail’.

While the camp and school were well run, Franks was dubious about the loyalty of the people. He felt that the school should play a greater role in inculcating British values and to this end, more of the teachers ought to be British, rather than the English-speaking colonials currently employed. On the birthday of ex-president Steyn, he complained, many of the children, headed by a group of women, had marched about the camp singing the Volkslied and waving Free State and Transvaal flags. They had tried to do the same on Kruger’s birthday, under the cover of singing Moody and Sankey hymns, but had been prevented by the superintendent.9 Sports were one means of preventing such mischief and, at the same time, teaching supposedly British notions of fair play. By the end of the war Orange River camp had a tennis court and a croquet ground and football was played daily.10

The importance of tact, however, was unexpectedly demonstrated in April 1902 when superintendent Nowers was suddenly confronted one morning by about 200 women. They demanded that the new SMO, Captain King, who had recently replaced Edwards, should be removed. They considered that convalescents were being kept too long in hospital, and that they were not given medicines. After Nowers thought he had calmed them down, he found that the mothers had descended on the hospital and were removing their children. The apparent ringleader, Mrs de Swardt, had struck Captain King in the face. The camp authorities acted vigorously, removing the recalcitrant families to other camps. But the incident deserves further exploration. It occurred against the background of the resurgence in measles and whooping cough and the rise in deaths. A post mortem performed on an orphaned child who had died unexpectedly of broncho-pneumonia had also caused great unease. Mrs Erasmus, who had been caring for the child, was fined £1 for failing to report its sickness and she spread a report that the SMO, Captain King, would do post mortems on all the children and ‘cut them to pieces’.

Underlying all this was the women’s dislike of Captain King, who lacked the ‘taking ways’ of the previous SMO. Although Nowers asserted that King was one of the politest men he had met (and Dr Edwards described him as ‘a model of perfection’), in King the women were confronted by a very alien personality for he had only recently arrived in South Africa, one of the handful of staff recruited from the Indian Medical Service to work in the camps. He spoke no Dutch and he attempted to impose on the camp hospital the conventions of British hospitals – above all the women were only allowed to visit their children twice a week, unless they were dying. One suspects that he meted out to the Boers the brusque treatment received by Indians in the plague camps and they reacted accordingly. The women met with no sympathy from the authorities but Nowers probably took care afterwards to ensure that their sensibilities were considered.

This was not the only occasion when the women erupted. A simple attempt to start a sewing class led to a squabble between the hard-working Sister Rutherford and one of the Boer women. The matter was soon settled but, Nowers observed, ‘the women take offence so very soon’.11

Despite these upsets, when Inspector Cole Bowen visited Orange River camp in February 1902 he, too, was impressed. ‘In conclusion’, he wrote, ‘I would quote Orange River Station as an example of what can be accomplished in a moderate sized camp, in which it is possible to attend to every detail with the utmost exactness’.12

The original black camp was taken over by Major de Lotbinière in August 1901, the purpose being to encourage the people to grow their own food. No more is heard of this camp. Between seventy and eighty blacks remained in the white camp, in service to the white inmates. For them life was uncertain for they were neither rationed nor clothed by the camp system and they were entirely dependent on the goodwill of their employers for their survival. In Orange River camp the majority were children and those under ten years slept in the tents with the white families, superintendent Nowers explained. Older people slept in marquee tents in a form of location. The chief superintendent (by now Colonel Wilkins from India) was disapproving and urged that they be removed from the white camp at night. Nowers explained, ‘These natives are brought up by the refugees almost as children’. He agreed, however, that they should be removed to the ‘location’ of older people.13

Repatriation at the end of the war took place rapidly. Most families returned to their farms and only two indigent families sought aid at the relief works. The camp was closed on 24 November 1902.14


R. Wiid and W. West, Die Oranjerivierkampe tydens die Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899-1902 (Pretoria, Protea Boekhuis, 2002).

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

Free State Archives Repository [FSAR].

Dr Kendal Franks report: Cd 934, pp.25-28; also at FSAR, SRC 16/6385].

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp.69-75.

1 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.99.

2 FSAR, SRC 10/3933, 23/7/1901; SRC 10/3736, 31/7/1901.

3 FSAR, SRC 11/3986, 5/8/1901; SRC 10/3939, 6/8/1901; SRC 10/3957, 7/8/1901; SRC 12/4317, 7/8/1901; SRC 11/4041, 18/8/1901; SRC 10/3922, 11/8/1901; SRC 11/4023, 19/8/1901.

4 FSAR, SRC 12/4390, 20/8/1901; SRC 12/4383, 24/8/1901.

5 Cd 893, pp.69-72.

6 FSAR, SRC 15/5716, 21/10/1901; Cd 893, p.73.

7 FSAR, SRC 21/7987, 26/3/1902; SRC 12/4490, 25/8/1901.

8 Cd 893, pp.73-75; Cd 934, p.27.

9 Cd 934, pp. 25-28.

10 FSAR, SRC 26/9098, 17/7/1902.

11 FSAR, SRC 22/8270, 20/4/1902; SRC 23/8321, 22/4/1902; SRC 23/8396, 2/5/1902; SRC 24/8521, 13/5/1901.

12 FSAR, SRC 19/7514, 10/2/1902.

13 FSAR, SRC24/8615, 24/5/1902; CO 32/307/01, 25/8/1901.

14 FSAR, SRC 27/9340, 23/7/1901; 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.