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


Volksrust camp was beautifully situated, in the shadow of Majuba mountain, on the border of Natal, where the Boers had defeated the British some twenty years before, reminding them of ‘the most glorious episode in their history’, as Dr Kendal Franks noted. But Elizabeth Neethling described the place as one of the most miserable in the Transvaal. For her, this was a bleak spot, enclosed by high barbed wire fences, with monotonous rows of bell tents. ‘Nothing bright, nothing pleasant, strikes the eye’. Even J.J. Carter, the first superintendent, shared her opinion. ‘Owing to the altitude of the place, and the unprotected nature of the situation, the cold is intense at night, and when a breeze is blowing the days are also very keen’, he wrote. This ‘bracing’ climate might be beneficial for the healthy but it affected the aged and very young severely, and it was hard on the families who came from the milder districts of Vryheid, Utrecht and Piet Retief.1

It is not clear when Volksrust camp was formed but in May 1901 there were already nearly 5,000 inmates. At first the Boers in this camp seemed less impoverished than those in some of the other camps. Even later arrivals were described as ‘fairly well clothed’, possessing the ‘wherewithal for tent life’. By September 1901, however, the new inmates were considered ‘of a very low class’ and badly provided for. Another group, from the Ermelo, Utrecht and Wakkerstroom districts, were ‘in a very filthy and destitute condition, and altogether a most undesirable lot’. The Ladies Committee also noted that 500 who came in November were ‘in a very destitute condition’. This steady influx of impoverished arrivals may have been one reason why the health of the camp deteriorated towards the end of the year, although Volksrust village was also sickly. Cold, heavy rain and the increase in numbers meant that tents were in short supply and worn.2

The camp did not remain long in its original position where the water supply was poor. Before long it was moved to an area about half a mile from Volksrust village, on better drained ground. Here the water supply was more abundant, piped from a local reservoir a mile away. The fence, a double row of barbed wire, which Neethling so disliked, was erected by the military to protect the camp from Boer attack, for the inmates were allowed to roam freely in the village and within the military lines during the day. The greatest disadvantage of the fencing was the fact that the camp could not be easily extended, contributing to the cramped pitching of the tents of which the authorities regularly complained. Nor could the tents be taken down and the ground disinfected, as happened in Vereeniging camp, for instance.3

Despite a somewhat untidy appearance, Volksrust seemed a well run camp. When Dr Kendal Franks visited the site in September 1901 he deplored the careless pitching of the tents, which were too close together and blocked the streets. Some of the inmates still lived in their own tents and wagons, which were unsightly to British eyes. Superintendent George King, who had replaced Carter on 19 August 1901, was now repitching the camp, and had decided to separate the invariably dirty from those of ‘more civilised habits’, a plan of which Franks approved. Yet, despite some grumbles about the untidiness of the camp and the dirtiness of the Boers, Franks was favourably impressed by Volksrust..4

I visited a great number of tents in this camp, and was struck by the number of clean, tidy, and well furnished tents I came across. There was not overcrowding anywhere in the tents, except, perhaps, in some of the Boer tent-and-wagon arrangements, which I would like to see prohibited in these camps. Some of the tents were as usual, dirty and uncared for, a fit reflection of the inmates themselves; but in a larger number there was evidence of comfort, order, and cleanliness, which in many of the camps I have looked for in vain’.5

But there were anomalies about Volksrust camp. Observers were sometimes very critical of it. One report noted in August 1901 that many of the tents were dirty, rubbish was deposited casually, close to the camp, and meat, ‘in various stages of decomposition’ was scattered around. It transpired that the Boers, when they were dissatisfied with the quality of the meat, simply threw it out. When they could afford it, they often preferred to buy their own. There was more to the story of the meat ration. The Ladies Committee noted that the ration was the smallest that they had encountered anywhere, only 1 lb of tinned meat per week for adults and ½ lb for children. The storekeeper said that he had been issuing tinned meat for the last six weeks or so, but the inmates said that they had received only tinned meat for months. When the Ladies checked, it became clear that this was all the families had received for the past three months. The Boers were not the only people to dislike the corned beef which was issued for so long. The medical officers suspected that it may have been responsible for the persistent diarrhoea which plagued the camp. Small children received a bottle of milk a day, made from condensed milk, but the place where it was issued was untidy and the milk stood in the sun.6

At the end of January 1902 Volksrust camp was visited by Captain Bentinck and W.F. Curry, the sanitary inspector. Both were extremely disapproving. Curry considered the sanitary condition of the camp ‘bad’. ‘Accumulations of refuse of all descriptions lie round about the Camp . . . Pails containing faecal matter and urine standing exposed to the sun for more than two days and emitting a very foul odour . . .’ Slop tubs were not emptied and the ground around was polluted. Altogether ‘the sanitary work requires energetic and instant attention’. The military, who were responsible for removing the rubbish, were not doing their work and Curry felt it would it would be better in the hands of the camp authorities. Curry’s report was followed by those of Bentinck who was even more acerbic – ‘an epidemic is to be dreaded’, he warned. The condition of the tents was poor. The camp was neither clean nor tidy. ‘I cannot condemn the Sanitary arrangements sufficiently’, he declared. None of the camp officials actually lived in the camp and this may have contributed to the lack of supervision and the ‘insufficient “hustling” of the Burgher Police and inmates of the Camp’. A week later he found little had improved. ‘The Superintendent, Mr. King, is a most hard-working man and has a deal to contend with – but is I think too “soft” with the people, particularly the Burgher Police, who are extremely slack’.7

King responded indignantly to these charges. They were ‘manifestly unfair’, he wrote, throwing discredit on the military authorities, the medical officers, the camp inmates and himself – everyone, in fact. He had already explained in his January report that there had been a shortage of disinfectants. The camp had improved steadily over the months, despite the arrival of hundreds of destitute refugees, who had to be trained in habits of cleanliness. Above all:

Most of the men and women are people who have voluntarily thrown themselves upon us for protection – not prisoners of war – and I have endeavoured by a mixture of patience, tack [tact] and firmness, to win their confidence and co operation, knowing full well that the “hustling” recommended by Captain Bentinck would only make them sullen and disobedient.’

He flatly refused to dismiss any of his staff, whom he had carefully trained. The doctors were equally incensed, rebutting Bentinck’s ‘hysterical’ statements point by point. Bentinck, however, was unrepentant, still determined to ‘hustle up’ the camp.8

The most accurate measure of the standard of the camps was the health. At first glance Volksrust fell into the category of a ‘bad’ camp. By May enteric was widespread and diarrhoea was prevalent, along with bronchitis and various coughs. Typhoid lingered into June, when the first cases of measles also appeared, the origins of which Dr Richard Hamilton was unable to trace. The epidemic was fuelled by an influx of families in the following month and a temporary hospital was established to care for the victims. Dr Hamilton blamed the concealment of cases for the spread of the disease. One suspects, however, that he lacked authority, for he complained constantly about the filthiness of the Boers and their unwillingness to air their tents. ‘Many of the refugees pay absolutely no attention to anything I may say on this subject’, he wrote. [For a contrasting approach see Norvals Pont or Vereeniging camps].9

Although the measles epidemic was relatively brief, Volksrust continued to suffer from typhoid and a number of other diseases, as the Ladies Committee noted. There were fifty cases in the hospital when they visited (and more may have been concealed in the tents, since the inmates were left to themselves to report illness). The doctors believed that the problem lay, not in the water supply which was good, but in the polluted ground of the camp, since there was no space to strike the tents and disinfect the ground. In addition, there was much other sickness, including ‘many light’ cases of scurvy, diarrhoea, whooping cough, dysentery, diphtheria and twelve cases of cancrum oris, one of the consequences of severe measles. Dr Hamilton confirmed that there were cases of scurvy at this time (November 1901) and the tents were overcrowded. By December typhoid was on the increase, although scurvy was diminishing. It would seem that the military authorities also viewed Volksrust camp with some suspicion for, in January 1902, although the number of cases was declining, they objected to enteric patients being treated in the hospital in town. Instead, a new site was found between the camp and the town to establish an enteric hospital in marquees although, in the end, it failed to materialise.10

The MO struggled to understand the reasons for the poor health of the camp. He ascribed the ‘very heavy death rate’ to heredity (he meant culture). ‘Our experience is that the Dutch women are phlegmatic, lazy, (suffering from want of exercise) and the average standard of health is below the normal, consequently the stamina of the children at birth is not good.’ Secondly, he complained of the disregard of ordinary sanitary principles. His disgusting account emphasised the failure to potty-train the children or to empty the pots used at night. ‘The consequence is that the ground on which the tents stand is frequently polluted; the air in the tents is frequently foul, and the food must suffer from contamination of dried up particles of excrementitious matter’. Thirdly was the ‘want of personal cleanliness’ of the people.11

It is hardly surprising, then, that summer brought an increase in typhoid. But, however bad the camp, Volksrust village and the neighbourhood also suffered. At least the superintendent and medical officers grasped the fact that the ground was unduly polluted and a huge effort was made to strike the tents and clean the ground with sun, air and lime. Yet, King concluded gloomily, ‘spend money like water and pamper them to the highest degree, the death rate will continue to be abnormal until they can return to their old life and old habits on the Veldt’.12

Afrikaner accounts of Volksrust camp also emphasise the mortality. Elizabeth Neethling claimed that sixteen a day died while she was there.

Bad food, bad sanitation, bad shelter, wet floors, insufficient covering in the severe weather, are amongst the causes. Disease itself would not have claimed so many victims, but when disease came, their constitutions had been undermined by hardships suffered since falling into the hands of their enemies; and when patients did pass the crisis and become convalescent, there was nothing they could digest, not to speak of tempting the appetite. So, after all, cruel though it seems to say so, the great majority died of actual starvation’.13

But the statistics tell a different story. One may dismiss their accuracy, as camp historians. basing their understanding on the criticisms of Emily Hobhouse (who also made mistakes in her arithmetic), have done for the past hundred years. However, one needs to understand that, for the British, accurate statistics were one of the hallmarks of good government and one of the things they were doing in the camps was to establish the rudiments of efficient administration. There is ample evidence in the records that statistics were checked and rechecked. Errors were trivial. And, as the graphs below, based on the British statistics, indicate, Volksrust was quite a healthy camp. It is true that, during the peak of the measles epidemic, the Volksrust death rate rose above the average, but this was true of almost every camp. It is also true that measles lingered on, with a brief recrudescence in early 1902. But the average death rate was well below that of the Transvaal average. (The increase at the end can be ignored for tiny numbers were involved). Despite the bleak picture which Volksrust sometimes presented, it was a relatively healthy camp.

How did Volksrust manage to keep down its death rate? One bright spot was the hospital, which was not a marquee but a ‘commodious building’ in the town (the Grand Hotel), and was well staffed, with an experienced matron, Sister Bartman, and a large number of ‘probationers’. Elizabeth Neethling gave the hospital a bad press.

At Volksrust infants of a few months were taken, almost by force, from their mothers who nursed them, to the hospital where they were looked after (or not looked after) by an unsympathetic matron, and half a dozen quite inexperienced girls, who declared it was too much trouble to have feeding bottles for the babies, so fed them with teaspoons on condensed milk and (very much!) water. The mothers were allowed to see them for a couple of hours on Sundays and Wednesdays. When a mother was summoned on any intervening day, she might be pretty sure that her little child was dying or dead’.14

But there is another way of interpreting this evidence. Sister Bartman remained in the hospital throughout the life of Volksrust camp, in itself a sign of considerable dedication, and there is no other suggestion that she was unkind. She worked well with the Boer ‘probationers’, Neethling’s own people. It was understandable that the restricted visiting hours were resented but the decision that mothers could remain with their dying children suggests some compassion. Neethling was misinterpreting a hostility to hospitalisation that was common to many pre-industrial societies. Hospitals are daunting and alien places but, in Volksrust camp, as in many other camps, over time this resistance was gradually overcome. By March 1902 King could report with pride that there had been an extraordinary change in the attitude to the hospital. Now the slightest ailment was promptly reported and the inmates were anxious to enter the hospital.15

There were other factors which prevented deaths. Most of the sick were treated in hospital rather than in the tents. There they were warmer and better fed and cared for, despite the light diet which was always a part of the treatment of typhoid patients and many of the measles victims (which Neethling saw as starvation – and condensed milk, though not ideal for babies, was supposed to be diluted). When the measles epidemic started, a separate measles hospital was set up. Later convalescent and isolation camps were also established. Whatever the complaints about the dirtiness of the Boers, in Volksrust camp baths were provided, open in the afternoons. When the Ladies Committee visited, they found fifteen women and 77 children bathing. ‘They are used and appreciated’, they noted.16 All these actions contributed to the recovery of the sick and, in all the criticisms of Volksrust camp, there was no suggestion that medical care was not attentive. Volksrust inmates may have been unwell but they did not die.

Many of the Volksrust inmates had money of their own and most of the men could get paid work. Not only did the camp employ a substantial number; in addition, some were able to get jobs in Volksrust and even Charlestown, some distance away, as builders, carpenters, blacksmiths and bricklayers. A few worked as clerks in the local stores while ‘large numbers’ enlisted in the Volunteer Corps. ‘There are now few idle men in the camp’, superintendent King boasted proudly in October 1901. Indeed, inmates were so well off that shopping seems to have been an prominent feature of daily life. The camp store, superintendent Carter commented, was not well patronised since the Boers preferred to go into Volksrust – ‘the idea of a trip to town to purchase necessaries recommends itself to the majority of refugees’, he wrote primly. But the small, dark sod hut which housed Poynton’s store may also have been unappealing, although, in a good month, the shop took over £1,000. The storekeeper felt that he would have done better if it were not for the fact that men from the village shops came into the camp touting for customers. Enterprising Indians had also set up booths just outside the camp, selling meat, vegetables and fruit, and lemonade. If the rations were inadequate, at least some families could supplement them.17

The prevalence of scurvy encouraged King to start vegetable gardens. Aware that most of the Boers were farmers, he appealed to the local officer commanding for ground. The ‘worthy General, who is at all times ready to do anything in his power for their welfare’, provided a large piece of land, fenced to prevent pilfering and farmed as individual allotments. King seems, in fact, to have been a little obsessed about the possibility of theft in the vegetable gardens. There was only one gate, and each holder of a plot had a ticket signed by King to allow him in. On the other hand, it may have been the individual right to the land which led the Boer men to take up the scheme so enthusiastically, combined with the fact that they could sell the crops they raised. By November there were 200 allotments of a substantial size.18

Superintendent King was particularly proud of the school. The fifteen teachers taught classes ranging from Standards B (pre-school) to 5 and the age of the children ranged from 2 to 22; there was an adult class as well. The greatest defect, King felt, was the poor English spoken by the Boer teachers and those from Holland. He urged that bilingual teachers be obtained from the Cape Colony, rather than from Britain. The school grew steadily and, by November 1901, there were over 1,000 pupils and 25 teachers. Further expansion was impeded only by the lack of space. Sports and celebrations were another means of inculcating British values. At Christmas children were given sweets and dates and a sports day was held. ‘Most of the people were dressed in Holiday attire; the whole affair was a great success and was much appreciated by the people, as was shewn by the letter of thanks to yourself from the inmates of the Camp’. A notable feature of the Christmas celebrations was the number of English games played, and the repetition of English rhymes by the schoolchildren, ‘a sure sign that the English language is slowly but steadily gaining ground’.19

Although superintendent Carter described the inmates as ‘fairly well behaved’ and ‘contented on the whole’, as the presence of Elizabeth Neethling suggests, some of the camp inmates were not reconciled to their fate. Their anger was often displayed in the friction between the surrendered men and the wives of men on commando. ‘Wordy altercations are frequent and I am endeavouring to suppress this by threatening to punish anyone on either side who start a quarrel’, King reported on one occasion. Eventually part of the camp was set aside for National Scouts and their families to prevent this discord.20

King himself endeavoured to steer a course between his loyalty to the British cause, and his sympathy for the Boers. While he clearly supported Milner’s anglicisation of the camps, he was conscious of the need to treat the Boers with dignity. One consequence of the construction of new buildings and the enlargement of facilities, he wrote in one report, was the ‘moral effect’ on the Boers.

Those who before were inclined to be doubtful have now become convinced of our determination to stay until we have gained our end, while it seems to be gradually dawning upon all of them that we are anxious to provide for their comfort, and are willing in every way possible to try and alleviate the conditions under which, as a result of the treachery and obstinacy of the burghers still on commando, they are bound more or less to suffer. They may be prisoners to a certain extent, the exigencies of the time demand it, but they suffer no indignity and no restraint is placed upon them or no obedience enforced except in regard to such measures which govern all well conducted communities and which are framed for their own well-being’.21

At the end of the war King was replaced by Captain Featherstone as superintendent and Dr McConnell replaced Dr Marshall. By this time the Boers were eager to return home and the superintendent had some difficulty in preventing more conflict between the National Scouts and the surrendered burghers who were returning. It was also hard to get enough men to do the camp work since, with the ending of the war, most were free to take better paid jobs outside. A shortage of transport delayed repatriation. As the months passed away, those remaining became increasingly anxious as they feared that they would lose the opportunity to sow their crops. By December, however, most had returned home and the camp probably closed at the end of that month.22


E. Neethling, Should We Forget? (Cape Town, HAUM, 1902).

Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.83-85, 159-161, 272-274, 384-387; Cd 853, pp. 101-104; Cd 902, pp. 109-112.

Unpublished camp reports in the National Archives, Pretoria [NASA], DBC 11-14.

Kendal Franks report: Cd 819, pp. 303-305.

Ladies Committee report: Cd 893, pp. 194-198.

1 Cd 819, p.83-84, 303; Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.104.

2 Cd 819, p.83, 273, 303-304; Cd 853, p.102; Cd 902, p.111; Cd 893, p.195; NASA, DBC 14, November 1901.

3 Cd 819, pp.183-84; 59-160; Cd 893, p.194.

4 Cd 819, p.303, 385.

5 Cd 819, p.305.

6 Cd 819, p.385; Cd 893, p.195; NASA, DBC 14, November 1902.

7 NASA, DBC 12, February 1902.

8 NASA, DBC 12, February 1902.

9 Cd 819. p.84, 160, 161, 273-274.

10 Cd 893, p.196; NASA, DBC 14, November 1901; DBC 12, December 1901, January 1902.

11 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901.

12 NASA, DBC 12, December 1901.

13 Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.105.

14 Neethling, Should We Forget?, p.111.

15 Cd 819. p.160, 161; NASA, DBC 12, March 1902.

16 Cd 893, p.194.

17 Cd 819, p.83, 273, 303-304; Cd 893, p.196; Cd 902, p.111.

18 Cd 853, p.103; Cd 902, p.111; Cd 893, p.197.

19 Cd 853, p.102; NASA, DBC 14, November 1901; DBC 12, December 1901.

20 Cd 853, p.103; Cd 819, p.161.

21 Cd 853, pp.102-103.

22 NASA, DBC 11, May-August 1902; DBC 13, October 1902; DBC 14, December 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.