BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War

Aliwal North

The origins of the Aliwal North camps are unusually well documented. In August 1900 Major Kendal Pretyman Apthorp, a relative of General Pretyman, the Military Governor of the Orange River Colony, was appointed District Commissioner of the Smithfield district. This area had a fairly large number of English-speaking farmers in addition to the Boer residents. When Apthorp took over, Smithfield was quiet. About forty impoverished families were asking for help and on 24 September 1900 Apthorp had to write to the Military Governor for funds and the right to appoint a Relief Committee to distribute aid.1

But at the end of September conditions began to change rapidly. Boer commandos had captured Zastron and Rouxville and occupied the towns for a couple of weeks. Shortly after Bethulie was threatened. A trickle of farmers began to rejoin the commandos. Apthorp was convinced that the Boers should be treated courteously and he was opposed to the farm burning which had begun to take place as reprisal for the raids. He was unhappy about the women, however, complaining that ‘they are far more bitter, and they excel the men as perverters of the truth’.2

By January 1901 Apthorp and his tiny force could no longer hold the Smithfield district and on 8 January the town was evacuated. Apthorp led a trek of ‘loyalists’ across the Orange River to Aliwal North in the Cape Colony. They had a rough time, he explained, ‘as they had a wagon between two or three families for baggage & all & had to leave everything standing’. A small camp had already been established by Aliwal North municipality for refugees from across the river. The numbers swelled enormously, however, once the scorched earth policy was instituted.3

Major Apthorp made a favourable impression on Emily Hobhouse, who considered that his camp was one of the best organised she had seen. ‘His camp can barely be called a prison, he has no soldiers or sentries and everyone is free to walk into the town or to receive visits from people in the town without passes’, she noted.4 Such freedom could not last, however, especially after the camp was raided by the Boers on 27 July 1901, although relatively few of the male inmates rejoined the commando. Mr W. Greathead, now camp superintendent, had the unnerving experience of being taken hostage, which may explain his later behaviour.5

A local, pro-British newspaper described the camp in somewhat fulsome terms in August 1901:

'The Aliwal North Refugee or Concentration Camp is situated on the junction of the Orange and Kraai Rivers about three miles from town and consists of some 4,600 men, women and children. The site chosen is an excellent one, one of the best that could be hit upon in this essentially healthy and beautiful district. The camp is laid out like a little township in a series of wide long and straight streets with every convenient, not to say luxurious appointment. There are eight shops or stores at which all necessaries can be bought; there is ample recreation ground, three tennis courts, a croquet ground and a boxing area, having been laid out, while there is a fully equipped post office, under Postmaster Dixon, of the O.R.C. not to mention a photographic studio and a barber shop, and an item of essential unimportance, [sic] there are no less than five school rooms where nearly 400 children are being educated free, there is also a church, presided over by the Rev. Brink who, being a permanent resident of the camp is ever at hand. Besides the ordinary shops above mentioned there is a large commodious Government store where everything necessary is stocked and which is kept by the busy assistant in a state of absolute cleanliness, the butcher's shop being especially a model of what a place of this nature ought to be’.6

However, by the time the Ladies Commission visited the camp on 4 September 1901, conditions had deteriorated badly. Indeed, as early as June 1901 General Hart had reported to Captain Trollope at head office in Bloemfontein that the place was looking scruffy, but no action was taken. There was ample water from the river but it was often muddy and had to be filtered, although it was not polluted.7 When Dr Pratt Yule inspected the camp in August, he was also critical of conditions. The main problem was that the superintendent, Mr Greathead, had chosen to live in the town of Aliwal North and supervision of the camp was poor. Much of the work was left to his assistants, or the local Resident Magistrate. Finally, towards the end of that month head office sent Roy Harley to investigate. He was appalled by what he found, with the camp run by a junior official, Mr van der Hoven. Greathead was finally dismissed and the camp greatly improved.8

Whatever the difficulties that Aliwal North endured, it was a relatively healthy camp. Certainly it endured the usual measles epidemic but its duration was short, lasting little more than a month at its peak. Summer brought some disease as well but Aliwal North’s mortality was, on the whole, no higher than the average in the ORC camps.

The graph below confirms that mortality in Aliwal North camp was fairly low for the average death rate was substantially lower than that of the general average death rate for the camps.

By 1902 Aliwal North camp was a very different place, many inmates living in huts rather than tents. The school was active, and even had a piano and two sewing machines, purchased with the profits of a sewing class bazaar.9 The celebration of Edward VII’s coronation was a lively affair, with a ‘conversazione’ for the sewing class of over 100 young women, and a programme of singing and dancing. The children were given a picnic with cakes, ginger-beer and sweets. Festivities concluded with the National Anthem, sung ‘with fervour’ by English and Dutch alike, the superintendent claimed optimistically.10

Even when the camp had been reformed, life could be uncomfortable, as Dr Kendal Franks noted when his visited Aliwal North in January 1902. He regretted that he was unable to take any photographs because the dust storm was so severe.

‘It was not very bad on the first day of my visit, but on the second, great clouds of yellow, sandy dust swept the camp almost without intermission, sometimes completely obliterating all view of the tents which surrounded me on all sides. A little variety was occasionally caused by a revolving column of dust laden wind, in the country called a 'dust devil', tearing through the camp, threatening to tear away those tents which lay in its path. Such a dust storm made my inspection both difficult and unpleasant, and made me sympathise deeply with all those, refugees and officials alike, who had to live in the midst of it. In the afternoon when I entered one of the MO's tents, I could not distinguish the sheets from the blankets on the bed, so thickly were they covered with dust. I was told that these dust storms had been almost a daily occurrence for the last two months, and the inhabitants were naturally anxiously looking forward to the onset of the rainy season to abate this almost insupportable nuisance’.11

There was also a black camp nearby, initially with about 100 people working as servants to the white camp inmates. By May 1901 their numbers had swelled to nearly 2,000.12 Unusually, they received rations but their living conditions appear to have been far worse than that of the whites. Tents were provided reluctantly. By March 1901 children were dying in large numbers and the death rate was four times that of the white camp. Gastro-enteritis, dysentery, bronchitis, pneumonia and measles all struck the camp. An inspector noted that the high infant mortality rate was almost certainly largely due to exposure. 13 Unsuitable food, lack of medicines and the poverty of the inmates who could not afford to supplement their inadequate rations all contributed to the mortality.14 In addition to the women and children, about 400 black men were employed in the white camp. By July 1901 they were complaining that the mealie meal provided was bad, although the authorities denied that there was anything wrong with it. 15 The Aliwal North black camp was never transferred to the administration under Colonel de Lotbiniére, as most were, but remained under local control.

The camp was closed by the end of November 1902, after the inmates had been repatriated to their homes. The process was not entirely smooth since men from the commandos, entering the camps to rejoin their families, before going home, often resented camp discipline. 16

Staff included:

Superintendents: R. Harley [1/3/1901], W.W. Greathead [c.15/3/1901], R. Harley [c.29/9/1901]

Doctors: Luther Watson, R.G.D. Speedy [1/5/1901], G. Hoexter [before May 1901], C. Kops [2/5/1901], R.A. Heath [c.30/8/1901-c.25/2/1902], F.J.B. Bateman [c.30/8/1901], J.B. Voortman [c.25/2/1902].

Nurses: Surtees, Headland, F.R. Ruffel [c.7/12/1901]; Matrons: A.W. Gill - Hospital, F.C. Davis - Camp, E.R. Terry - Assistant Camp [c. 5/12/1901];

Ministers of Religion: Revs C.J. Brink [c.1/3/1901], du Plessis [c.1/9/1901]


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

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

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

1 FSAR, MG 2, Letters received.

2 FSAR, MG 2, Letters received.

3 FSAR, MG 2, Letters received

4 van Reenen, Letters, p.59.

5 FSAR, SRC 10/3665, 28/7/1901

6 Northern Post and Border News, 2/8/1901

7 FSAR, SRC 8/2608, 12/6/1901, SRC 18/7190, 8/1/1902, SRC 18/7017, 7/3/190..

8 FSAR, SRC 12/4686, 25/8/1901; SRC 13/5089, 20/9/1901, SRC 14/5646, 29/9/1901.

9 FSAR, SRC 24/8646, 17/5/1902.

10 FSAR, SRC 26/9118, 9/7/1902

11 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 7/2/1902

12 FSAR, SRC 6/1606, 1/5/1901

13 FSAR, SRC 6/1799, 6/5/1901

14 FSAR, SRC 4/962, 23/3/1901 and SRC5/1163, 1/4/1901

15 FSAR, SRC 9/3308, 8/7/1901

16 FSAR, SRC 25/9007, 26/6/1902

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.