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


Although it is not clear exactly when Springfontein camp was formed, in January 1901 the District Commissioner for Bloemfontein reported that he had visited the village because he had heard that the Dewetsdorp people were being sent to a refugee camp there. According to Dr Kendal Franks the camp was started on 22 February 1901 and shortly after William Gostling, who had been the Philippolis magistrate, was appointed superintendent. By the end of February 1901 Springfontein camp was fully established although it was tiny, with a total of 409 inmates including two blacks.1

When Emily Hobhouse visited Springfontein in early March 1901, she found a ‘queer little spot’, ringed by stony koppies in the treeless grasslands of the southern Free State. Gostling, whom Hobhouse described as ‘a really kind man’, had created an orderly place and the camp usually made a favourable impression on visitors. A ‘colonial lady’ who saw the camp in February 1902 commented that:

The even streets, the clean tents, the whitewashed stones placed to mark different squares and streets, made the impression on the stranger of order and prosperity. Now I can understand how a stranger coming for a peep at the camps can leave well satisfied with all that is done in such a place for its inmates. He naturally does not see behind the scenes, the heartache, the oppression, the indignities often heaped upon these patient, silent Boers’.2

However humane Gostling may have been, he was a stern disciplinarian and a vigorous supporter of the British cause. He protested against the transfer of Boers to their own districts.

Several families from Philippolis under my charge, I know to be particularly ill conditioned who, while being apparently loyal in the highest degree, are to my certain knowledge, absolutely disloyal and are only waiting for an opportunity to communicate with their friends   our enemies, either directly or through the medium of the natives’.3

Gostling was also unwilling to allow people to join their relatives in the Cape Colony and had vetoed a number of applications. ‘There is sedition enough already’, he told the Ladies Committee, ‘in many parts of the Cape Colony, and to add more would increase the risk of a rising’. Later he asked the Deputy Administrator if he might write to the London Standard on the camps. The administration of the camps was grossly misrepresented, he believed and he felt that, with his knowledge of the Boers, he could offer a very different interpretation. But the authorities turned down this suggestion. ‘Obstreperous’ and dirty people were imprisoned in a separate enclosure. ‘If women cannot govern their tongues they are put in there’, the Ladies Committee explained.4

Gostling needed to keep his head, for the early months of Springfontein camp were difficult. As Hobhouse noted, the majority of the inmates were bywoners, many of them desperately impoverished. Early arrivals had little clothing. Some women had to make petticoats out of army blankets, one was sporting a man’s trousers while the girls often had nothing but the frocks they were wearing, with no underclothes. Many went barefoot. Emily Hobhouse helped where she could.

All day I have sat on a farmhouse stoep and had each family in succession brought to me from the tents, fitting each in turn with clothes as far as possible, just to cover their nakedness. Each woman tells me her story   a story which, from its similarity to all which have gone before, grows monotonous. But it is always interesting to note the various ways in which the great common trouble is met by diverse characters. Some are scared, some paralyzed and unable to realize their loss; some are dissolved in tears; some, mute and dry eyed, seem only to be able to think of the blank, penniless future; some are glowing with pride at being prisoners for their country's sake.’

Fortunately, many families were able to supplement their incomes with work in the camp and at least some made use of the three shops which had been started. These were run by Jews ‘in rivalry with each other’ which must have kept prices down. When the Ladies Committee visited, they noted that one was full of customers but the other two were empty.5

By the end of March 1901 Springfontein camp was growing rapidly as the military sweeps brought in hundreds of families, including a substantial number of blacks from Bethany mission station. Since Springfontein lacked a formal black camp, these people were sent on to Edenburg. A number of black people remained attached to the camp, some of them from the Thaba ‘Nchu district. They had been taken from their homes in March 1901 and the families were subsequently separated. In July they asked to be reunited with their families in Thaba ‘Nchu and the authorities agreed to send them home. The Ladies Committee noted that the black servants were expected to remain in the nearby location, where they received rations. Confusion about a black camp at Springfontein remained, however, for the Aborigines Protection Society in London noted, in March 1902, that Springfontein black camp was reported to be one of those with a particularly high mortality rate. Chamberlain had little knowledge of the subject since Milner had not sent him these details ‘as they are quite a separate matter from the Concentration Camps’. Sadly, as so often, the fate of the Springfontein black families remained opaque. The statistics mentioned a Springfontein camp for the period August to September 1901, but no figures were given and it disappeared thereafter.6

Despite his earlier confidence that he could cope, by the middle of April 1901 Gostling was becoming desperate as people poured in. When Inspector Daller reported on the camp in that month, he noted that, with a population of 2,300, the accommodation was designed only for 500 people. Many of the tents were worn and rotten.7 Emily Hobhouse observed this explosion in the size of the camp. On Springfontein station she watched the arrival of another six hundred people:

It was pitiable to see them massed into the train, many of them in open trucks. It was bitterly cold and I was wrapped in your thick grey shawl; all night there had been a truly torrential downpour of rain and water stood everywhere upon the ground. On the saturated ground they were trying to dry themselves and their goods. Some women were pushing their way to the platform to try and buy food for their children. The soldiers would not permit this; I expostulated; the men said they were sorry for them, but they had to obey orders. It was Sunday morning and Springfontein's one small shop was closed, and I knew the Refreshment Room was the only place where food was available.’

She was extremely critical of a policy which made so little provision for the people rounded up in the military sweeps.

If only the camps had remained the size they were even six weeks ago. I saw some chance of getting them well in hand, organizing and dealing with the distress. But this sudden influx of hundreds and thousands has upset everything and reduced us all to a state bordering on despair. I feel paralyzed in face of it. I feel money is of little avail, and there are moments when I feel it would be wisest to stop trying and hasten home to state plain facts and beg that a stop may be put to it all.’

The Deputy Administrator of the ORC, Major Goold Adams, she noted, had no power either to influence this policy or to supply adequate necessities for the camps.8

Bethulie camp was hastily established as an emergency measure to take the overflow from Springfontein, but it was even less able to cope with the influx. The flood of Boers and the accompanying shortages continued for months. At the end of August 1901 Gostling telegraphed for more tents as eighty refugees were expected. ‘Have only those tents which cover others’, he explained. The next day he reported that 200 people had been brought in by Major Damant’s column. ‘Please hurry on tents’, he begged. Added to this, Springfontein became the reception camp for ‘undesirables’ sent from other camps.9

Emily Hobhouse left an enduring picture of the suffering of the people waiting on Springfontein station for admittance into the camp:

To such a shelter I was called to see a sick baby. The mother sat on her trunk with the child across her knee. She had nothing to give it and the child was sinking fast. I thought a few drops of brandy might save it, but tho' I had money there was none to be had. I thought of the Superintendent of the camp   a mile off   and sent a hasty message to ask him to let me have some for a sick child, but the reply was that the supplies were only for his camp. There was nothing to be done and we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence. The mother neither moved nor wept. It was her only child. Dry eyed but deathly white, she sat there motionless looking not at the child but far, far away into the depths of grief beyond all tears. A friend who stood behind her who called upon Heaven to witness this tragedy and others crouching on the ground around her wept freely. The scene made an indelible impression upon me. The leading elements in the great tragedy working itself out in your country seemed to have gathered under that old bit of sailcloth whose tattered sides hardly kept off sun, wind or rain. . . .’

Later she described the scene to the sculptor, Anton van Wouw, who incorporated it into the Women’s Monument erected in Bloemfontein.10

As bad as the lack of accommodation was the shortage of fuel in this treeless landscape which the military stripped of any available wood. Although the Ladies Committee, in September 1901, thought there was enough coal, the people still complained that they often had to eat half-cooked food, causing ‘weakness of stomach’. When the Ladies suggested that some families clubbed together, the health committee explained: ‘Honoured ladies, it is very true it would save our fuel, but we should all have to be born again, and a new love would have to be created among us; everyone likes to cook his own pot’; another woman added: ‘Yes; and if we put a fat piece in we like to take a fat piece out’. The lack of wood meant that, in this otherwise efficient camp, most of the people were still sleeping on the ground. The Ladies suggested that packing cases might be used for ‘kartels’ but Gostling explained that these had all been used for coffins (the shortage affected the military as well, for soldiers in the nearby camp were buried in blankets).11

The presence of a large number of the military, including both remount and transport camps, meant that Springfontein also had to compete with the military for water. Although the camp water supply was adequate the army monopolised the dams which Gostling would like to have used to create a vegetable garden. He thought poorly of the head office suggestion that the gardens could be watered with pots made of old coffee tins. Pumpkins, the staple vegetable of the Boers, needed more water than a few coffee tins could supply, he pointed out.12

Like all the early camp superintendents, Gostling struggled in the early months with an inflexible head office, determined to save money at all costs. The response to his objections to the poor quality of the meat was unsympathetic: ‘The meat supplied you is the best quality obtainable under the circumstances, and no other kind can be substituted’, he was told. He was also reprimanded for sending a large order for buckets and tubs. Head Office suggested that old paraffin tins made a good substitute. In his defence, Gostling responded that he couldn’t get old paraffin tins. Although he promised to avoid unnecessary expense, he explained: ‘I gathered from Sir Alfred Milner’s remarks at the Station here, when I had some conversation with him, on his way North, that he wished me to propitiate Miss Hobhouse, and, to avoid giving any possible chance for hostile criticism on the accommodation afforded to Dutch persons in this Camp’.13

As the graphs indicate, despite the lack of accommodation and fuel, Springfontein was a relatively healthy camp, but it could not escape the measles epidemic which struck in June 1901. Gostling promptly closed the school which may have restricted the infection.14 Although the measles epidemic passed quickly, a rise in the number of deaths in October, mainly from pneumonia and typhoid, created a second peak. Amongst the fatalities was William Gostling. ‘To him is due the reputation which this [camp] has had of being one of the most contented and best managed camps in the Orange River Colony’, Dr Franks wrote of him.15

The Ladies Committee visited the camp in September 1901. They found a camp which was operating smoothly although some of the problems which had existed from the earliest days still remained. Unusually, Gostling had drawn a wide range of camp people into the management of the camp. There was a sanitary policeman for each line of tents but, in addition, a ‘Lad’s Brigade’ had been appointed for special sanitary ‘Fatigues’. They were paid occasionally in sweets or marbles. A health committee, each member identified by a white band round his or her arm, was appointed from the different sections of the camp, and they took the place of a camp matron. They reported on sickness in the tents and distributed clothing. A ‘Young Ladies’ Committee’ of forty-five young women also reported on sickness, took medical comforts to the sick and helped with camp nursing.16

The Ladies Committee was particularly impressed by the convalescent camp, to which the entire family was transferred when a child was recovering from measles. There they received extra rations of rice, jam, Quaker oats and milk and this treatment may well explain why Springfontein’s mortality rate was relatively low, for it was the aftermath of measles, rather than the disease itself, which was so often fatal.17

But, when they could, the Boers preferred to doctor themselves. Most of the camps clamped down on the use of Boer medicines. In Springfontein camp, however, an enterprising man, Edward Sephton of Thefontein in the Dewetsdorp district, made and dispensed his own medicine, selling it at the considerable rate of 20 shillings a bottle. He had obtained the recipe years ago from a Boer doctor, he explained, and the old Free State government had often sanctioned unqualified vendors of medicines. Although it is not clear what the ingredients were (probably opium or similar opiate), they were in contravention of the law, and Sephton was prosecuted. British hostility to Boer medicine was confirmed a couple of months later, when Mrs Johanna Robins of Gelegenfontein farm in the Wepener district died of poisoning. She had, apparently, taken medicine originally supplied to her husband by a veterinary surgeon.18

Dr Kendal Franks reported on Springfontein camp in January 1902, some months after Gostling’s death. Gostling had been succeeded by J.H. Sinclair, ‘the famous South African Cricketer’. The site was surprisingly attractive for a long avenue of trees had been planted down the middle of the main street, which was also marked out by lines of whitened stones. A number of families were now living in 83 huts built of sun-dried bricks, rather than the ubiquitous bell tents. The administration of the camp was extremely methodical, with a group of unpaid ‘corporals’ supervising the cleanliness of the tents and streets. The ‘boys’ brigade’ swept the streets. African men were responsible for the latrines and Franks urged that their wage be increased to the military wage of £4 a month, since it was otherwise difficult to persuade the men to work properly. The health committee was still in existence but, although they appeared to perform their work well, Franks considered it inappropriate to allow refugees to do this job and urged the appointment of camp and relief matrons instead.

The school was closed for the holidays when Franks visited the camp but he commented particularly on the teaching staff, which is worth listing for it gives an indication of the mix of nationalities in the camps. The headmaster was Mr A.D. Stuart, a colonial of British origin. His assistant, Mr John Richter, was a colonial of German descent. The women assistants included Miss L. Stuart, Stuart’s daughter, and Misses Ida Monro, E. Monro and Wiggill, all English colonials, and three Dutch Free Staters, Misses Joubert, K.E. Kolbe and A. de Villiers. This, Franks considered, was a better selection of personnel than he had found in other camps, because of the preponderance of the ‘British element’.

Franks was particularly impressed by the hospital, run by Dr Webb who had been seconded from the R.A.M.C. He was ‘an excellent organiser and administrator’ and the hospital ran efficiently. The nurses, Sisters Rintoul, McCowan and May, had all been recruited from Britain, from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Glasgow and England respectively. The Boer ‘probationers’ worked well and had no wish to leave – often a telling guide to the harmonious functioning of the medical staff. ‘The selection has been well made, they are bright intelligent looking girls’, Franks observed. Despite the prevalence of enteric and pneumonia, Franks considered the health of the camp was good. ‘I did not meet in this camp with any cases of starvation or parental neglect such as I have described elsewhere’, he noted. Webb informed Franks that when, in the beginning, he had encountered such cases, he made the mother bring the child to him every day for a fortnight, and threatened to charge her with manslaughter if anything happened to the child.

Generally Franks was happy with Springfontein camp. ‘The people look in very good ease and seem happy and contented. Most of the children I saw running about the camp looked well fed and chubby, and to be enjoying themselves, and there seemed to be an excellent spirit pervading the camp generally’.19

Franks was not the only official to report on the camp. The Rev. William Robertson, the ‘chief’ Dutch Reformed minister in the ORC, for whom Chief Superintendent Trollope had deep respect, spent some days in Springfontein camp with his daughter who was ill. He noted whimsically,

Since my arrival at this place, I have been puzzling my brain, as to the origin of the name Springfontein. I could come to no other conclusion, than that the wise man who had given the name had observed that it was nearer to the origin of winds, from every quarter, than perhaps any other place in the Orange River Colony. Windstorms, and dust storms are matters of daily occurrence. The site is not all that can be wished for, as a site for a Refugee Camp. It is on an open plain, with very little shelter of hills and mountains.’

Robertson was less impressed with the camp than Franks. He thought the area cramped, contributing to the enteric. Willem Smith, the chairman of the health committee, was ‘indefatigable and ubiquitous’. The ‘Boys’ Brigade’ he thought an excellent institution. ‘The boys do their work with a great deal of vigour and seem to enjoy it’, he observed. Like Franks, he was impressed by the hospital and the ‘self-denial and assiduity’ with which the doctors worked. Above all, he believed that the training of the young ‘probationers’ would have a long-lasting effect on health in the country. Robertson’s observations on the church, conducted by his son-in-law, were extensive but mundane, largely a description of the numbers of services and attendance. He was delighted, however, that a church was being erected, which would double as a school building.20

Repatriation was a prolonged matter in Springfontein camp for, like Brandfort, it was used as a centre for orphaned children and older destitute and homeless people. The hospital was converted into an orphanage and a trickle of children arrived over the next few months. By November Springfontein had been designated as the final camp for the collection of all the unwanted but both Springfontein and Brandfort survived into 1903. Finally, at the end of January the remaining inmates of Springfontein camp were transferred to Brandfort and the camp was closed in February 1903.21


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

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

SRC files in the Free State Archives Repository [FSAR]

SNA files in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA]

CO files in the National Archives United Kingdom [NAUK]

Kendal Franks report: Cd 893, pp.75-77

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 75-79.

1 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 8622, 7/2/1902; FSAR, MG 1, DC, Bloemfontein, Report for Jan 1901; SRC 1/131, 15/2/1901; SRC 1/16, 16/2/1901; SRC 1/148, 20/2/1901; SRC 1/166, 22/2/1901; SRC 1/171, 25/2/1901; SRC 3/510, 1/3/1901.

2 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.303; van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, pp.80-81.

3 FSAR, CO 19/1583/01, 15/5/1901.

4 Cd 893, p.77-78; FSAR, CO 24/2200/01, 22/6/1901.

5 Cd 893, p.77.

6 Hobhouse, Brunt of the War, p.351; Cd 893, p.78; FSAR, SRC 15/5674, 30/7/1901; NAUK, CO 879/73/682, 11767, 22/4/1902; NASA, SNA 13.

7 FSAR, SRC 4/852, 28/3/1901; SRC 4/940, 31/3/1901; SRC 4/982, 1/4/1901; SRC 4/976, 2/4/1901; SRC 4/1089, 12/4/1901; SRC 5/1206, 12/4/1901.

8 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, pp.107-108.

9 FSAR, SRC 12/4519, 28/8/1901; SRC 12/4529, 29/8/1901; SRC 14/5359, 4/10/1901.

10 van Reenen, Hobhouse Letters, p.112.

11 Cd 893, p.76, 78-79.

12 FSAR, SRC 11/4157, 15/8/1901.

13 FSAR, SRC 2/260, 24/2/1901; SRC 3/552, 15/3/1901.

14 FSAR, SRC 8/2656, 14/6/1901; SRC 11/4084, 10/8/1901

15 FSAR, SRC 15/5733, 16/10/1901; NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 8622, 7/2/1902.

16 Cd 893, pp.75-77.

17 Cd 893, p.77.

18 FSAR, CO 32/3085/01, 27/8/1901; SRC 19/7414, 3/2/1902.

19 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 8622, 7/2/1902.

20 FSAR, SRC 20/7537, 13/2/1902.

21 FSAR, SRC 27/9530, 11/8/1902; SRC 28/9818, 15/9/1902; SRC 30/10301, 18/11/1902; SRC 32/10617, 15/1/1903; SRC 32/10668, 22/1/1903; SRC 33/10724, 3/2/1903.

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.