BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Balmoral camp was established relatively late, on 25 July 1901, coming into use a week later – a remarkably short time in which to set up a camp. It was created to take the overflow from the Middelburg and Belfast camps and was divided into the districts from which most of the inmates came – Balmoral, Lydenburg and, later, Ermelo. The move from Middelburg had been precipitated by the poor health in that very large camp and the people arrived unwell. Later arrivals included fugitives from the Bronkhorstspruit district, who were starving and exhausted. By November 1901 they were coming in from the Lydenburg and Barberton districts, in a very bedraggled state, it was noted, because they had been out on the veld for some time. Although by the end of 1901 Kitchener had ordered that no more families should be sent to the camps, his instructions were often ignored and some continued to trickle in. On 27 April 1902 125 people arrived, half of them men, in a pitiful state. ‘They were literally in rags and it was hard to discern the original material of the men’s clothing. When compared with the inmates of the camp they looked a very unkempt lot’, the superintendent noted.1

The original site was an old military camp, just south of the railway station, and was strewn with refuse. E.R Harvey, the first superintendent, had hard work getting the area into a reasonable condition, as he was limited by lack of transport. This was often a problem for the camps when the military requisitioned all the available animals. The camp was unfenced as the entire area was protected by blockhouses. Within this vicinity camp inmates were allowed to wander freely. Because Balmoral was established so late, it was easy to pitch the camp with the mathematical tidiness favoured by the British officials. The tents had dung floors.2

Although both Harvey and the Ladies’ Commission were satisfied with the site, when the Military Governor of the Transvaal, General Maxwell, visited the camp on 14 January 1902, he ordered it to be moved to rising ground, almost a mile away. This was a huge labour, especially as the water supply now had to be piped from a considerable distance. In spite of these instructions from the top, it was months before the camp moved. One problem was the lack of transport because, even before the end of the war, the Boer men in the camp were allowed to go into the ‘low country’ with their stock and wagons to winter. As winter approached the lack of grazing also reduced the quality of the oxen. (In June 1902 the camp superintendent reported bitterly that he only had 22 mules, 11 oxen, 3 Scotch carts and 1 wagon to do all the camp work. ‘All the oxen belonging to the burghers have been sent out to the farms, and there are no waggons or oxen obtainable in the vicinity of Balmoral’.) Although the hospital moved in May, the main camp was only transferred in June 1902.3

Harvey considered the climate to be healthy but it was harsh. Towards the end of winter and the dry season the region was often ravaged by severe sandstorms. In September 1901 the camp was lashed by heavy rain storms, when water poured through the tents until a drain was dug to divert the flow. October was worse, with rain throughout the month, contributing to a variety of chest complaints. This was the result, Dr Lee considered, of the ‘weakly and strumous’ condition of the people, but superintendent Harvey was waist-deep in water on one occasion, when ten tents blew down. Recent arrivals were especially vulnerable to sickness. On 18 September 1901, during one such storm, one of the hospital marquees caught fire in the absence of the night nurse, Hester Vermeulen. The unfortunate woman was responsible for two marquees and was attending to the children in the second tent at the time. The fire was only spotted when the third hospital marquee blew down and Nurse Margaret Adank went in search of someone to help her put it up again. Tragically, four children died. To their credit, the British published the full details of the inquiry into the incident. (The Ladies’ Commission had a different version of the story, that Nurse Vermeulen, a Boer probationer, ran out of the tent in a panic when it caught fire. She was subsequently dismissed, they said.).4

The event confirmed the existing reluctance of the Boers to send their children to hospital and the camp authorities were, under the circumstances, unwilling to insist that they should do so. As the hospital expanded however, to ten marquees by November 1901, and better staff and equipment was introduced, this concession was abandoned. By January 1902 resistance was decreasing, the authorities believed, because everything was done to make the patients comfortable. The young Boer ‘probationers’ were settling down well to their work and would soon become really useful. By this time there were eighteen employed and they were provided with their own quarters in the hospital complex. The upbeat tone of the reports can, however, be confusing for the new camp superintendent, Captain Ross Garner, who arrived on 15 February 1902, confessed at the end of February 1902 that people were not willing to go into hospital since there was no visiting day. This was to be remedied.5

Even so, conditions were not comfortable. The new hospital was eventually occupied in April 1902. Despite all the work, it remained fairly primitive, with antheap floors, although these were supposed to be tarred. The marquees were not warm enough for chest cases, the MO complained, and a brick and iron ward of twelve beds was finally erected for such cases. Africans were regularly treated in the hospital, at least in 1902. In July 1902 a black man was brought in from a neighbouring farm with diphtheria and a tracheotomy was administered; in the same month another black man from outside died in the hospital of pneumonia. The following month two more men were admitted from the Repatriation Department, one with jaundice and the other with injuries after he had been run over by an ox wagon; two more were hurt by ox wagons in September while another outsider also died in the hospital.6

Not surprisingly, health was a major consideration from the start and Harvey took energetic steps to control the raging epidemic of measles which came with the first inmates, forming a quarantine camp to which infected families were moved. By the end of August eleven families had been isolated there. They were not allowed visitors but the patients were nursed by their mothers, a step which probably did something to reconcile them to their situation. Such actions was rare and seems to have been relatively effective, although the epidemic was fuelled in September by families brought in from Hans Senekal. Deaths, at least, had been minimised by the existence of the quarantine camp, Dr Lee believed. Unfortunately, as summer approached, enteric (typhoid) began to increase.

In a report in November 1901, the MO summed up the reasons for the poor health of the camp inmates. By the time the children came to Balmoral from other camps, most had had measles, which left them weak, liable to contract other infections, and unable to digest the camp food. Children born since the outbreak of the war were usually frail, probably because of the malnutrition of the mothers. Neither the corned beef nor the fresh meat, of poor quality, suited the children. He wanted all children who had suffered from measles to be accommodated in houses with proper floors, and given rations which should included vegetables, fresh or compressed, thereby supplying lime salts, he believed. (Scurvy was not fully understood since vitamins had not yet been discovered). In addition, they should receive lime juice, mealie meal and Boer meal, with the husks, rather than refined flour, and better meat. (Men coming into camp from the commandos often showed symptoms of scurvy due, the MO thought, to their ‘excessive meat diet’. In fact the men were frequently short of meat, and meat contains some vitamin C, obviating scurvy.)7

The pattern of mortality in Balmoral camp, as the graph below indicates, was a little different from the average pattern in the Transvaal. The epidemic started a little later (not surprisingly given the late establishment of the camp) and was of slightly shorter duration. Adults suffered an increase in deaths in the summer, almost certainly the result of typhoid fever.

The death rates, which give a more reliable indicator of what was happening, indicate that the authorities had reason to be concerned about deaths in Balmoral camp for it was somewhat higher than the Transvaal camp average (compare the grey and black lines). The adult lines also show that the typhoid epidemic was relatively serious. Men, especially suffered quite badly.

By January 1902 various reforms had greatly improved the health of the camp but childhood diseases remained a worry. In April 1902 two children died of diphtheria, the result of their tents being too close to the black location and the cattle kraals, the MO believed. In the same month mumps, though not a killer, ran through the camp. As winter approached, respiratory ailments increased. There was always a trickle of typhoid cases and the medical officers devoted much time to identifying the source. In April 1902, the current MO, Dr W.M. Montgomery, thought the infection might be due to the dust storms. Flies were not very prevalent, he explained, and the disease did not appear to be waterborne.8

As in most camps, the women preferred to have their babies born in their own tents, helped, in Balmoral, by a camp midwife, an experienced and sensible woman, the Ladies’ Commission was told. Milk was relatively generously supplied, with all children under six receiving a bottle a day. Dr Lee was concerned, however, by the ‘maternal incompetency’ in feeding the newborn infants, leaving a highway, he explained, to the ‘ravages of artificial feeding’. The ailments of women are barely mentioned in this male-dominated environment and in a world in which anything sexual was deeply private. One woman in Balmoral, however, died of ‘septic peritonitis’ following childbirth, a relatively uncommon phenomenon.

Food was the most expensive item in the camps and was always commented upon in the camp reports. Arriving as the Boers did, towards the end of winter, meat was a constant problem. The troops fared no better, Harvey noted, but he hoped that the military would soon bring in fresh stocks. This did not happen and by September he was looking to the young grass to improve the quality of the stock. By October the meat was so poor that it was condemned as unfit for human consumption and Harvey had to resort to tinned meat, which the people did not like. By 1902 the camps began to use frozen meat, and this was more satisfactory and more acceptable to the Boers, but it did occasionally arrive in an unusable condition and had to be sent back. Sugar in Balmoral was explicitly described as being yellow, granulated sugar from Natal rather than the more common imported sugar. Water was also a problem. Originally it was brought from the military camp but the pipes were dirty and the quality dubious. ‘Fountains’ (springs) were opened up instead, and tanks introduced to boil the water. By October 1901 ovens were also built to bake bread and a soup kitchen was established. Each family did its own cooking, many in ‘neat little ovens’, the Ladies’ Commission noted, made from zinc and iron carried away from neighbouring farm houses. The issuing of rations was quick and efficient. But difficulties were ongoing. In April 1902 fresh milk could no longer be obtained for the hospital because of the rinderpest which was now ravaging the cattle. Condensed milk, however, was abandoned for sterilised milk from Natal, an improvement the MO considered. As in other camps, a vegetable garden was eventually started at the beginning of January 1902, rather late for planting the superintendent noted, but they were coming on well. No more is heard of the garden and one can only surmise that it did not flourish.9

Much of the superintendent’s work was concerned with keeping the camp and tents clean. Before he had a camp matron, Harvey took the somewhat unusual step of appointing four Boer women, without uniforms, to inspect the tents, hoping that their work would not be realised by the other inmates. Dr Kendal Franks, who inspected the camp in August 1901, thought this unlikely given the suspicious nature of the Boers. By the following month the women had been replaced by a camp matron, Miss Mary Robb, a ‘useful and practical woman’, aided by a number of young Boer women. Harvey was critical of them as they were, he said, inclined to favour their friends in the distribution of clothing. He would have preferred a staff of young ladies of British extraction. Miss Robb, however, apparently thought much more highly of them than some ‘loyal refugees’ sent up from the coast, one of whom arrived drunk.10

Miss Robb, always described as interested in her work, also started ‘industrial’ sewing classes in February 1902. These were enthusiastically attended by about thirty girls. By this time the men were also kept occupied in a variety of jobs, ranging from the tannery, an early innovation, to carpentry and shoemaking. Two blacksmiths were later introduced to make metal tent pegs because the white ants tended to eat the wooden ones. Brickmaking, with sun-dried bricks, was a less satisfactory occupation since the torrential rains sometimes tended to wash them away before they could be used. Nevertheless, by the end of February 1902 the camp was turning out 5000 bricks a day, to be used in the buildings being erected in the new camp.11

Like most of the Transvaal camps, Balmoral had a Poynton’s store, but Harvey preferred to get fabric for clothing from his own firm, back in Cape Town, as he felt that Poynton’s prices were high. Nevertheless, the shop was well patronised, with such items as golden syrup, butter and lard, preserved ginger and Worcester sauce selling in substantial quantities. Some camp inmates could afford such luxuries since they were paid for their work, the young Boer women who assisted the camp matron receiving 1s a day, for instance, a sum which would buy a tin of butter or a bottle of Worcester sauce.

Superintendent Garner was concerned about the lack of recreational facilities for the camp inmates. Football was always popular and a little cricket was played, but in February 1902 he obtained hockey sticks to start that sport as well (it is not clear that the girls were allowed to play, though.) The coronation of Edward VII was celebrated with a picnic and a cable (telegram) from the camp inmates tendering their loyalty and expressing the hope that prosperity would abound and unity would prevail. (We don’t, of course, know who dissented from this.) In general the superintendent considered that the camp inmates bore the authorities no ill will. It is always difficult to judge these comments but other indications suggest that relations in Balmoral camp were relatively harmonious for much of the time. The attitude to the young Boer women, the ‘probationers’, employed in the camp hospital is often indicative of the attitude of the camp authorities to the people in their care. Balmoral was consistently positive; the women were never pilloried for their lack of cleanliness, their slowness or their inability to learn. On the contrary, by April 1902 the women were receiving lectures on first aid and they showed ‘very keen interest’ in the work, it was noted. Conditions did change somewhat after the end of the war with the returning prisoners-of-war. Relations between the male bittereindes and the joiners became much more strained, the superintendent commented. ‘The people who surrendered with the Government wear as a distinguishing mark a black and white rosette’, he reported.12

A camp chaplain, the Rev. de Beer, was appointed only in 1902, a step in the right direction, the superintendent thought. Previously the camp inmates had only had the occasional services of the town dominee. His services were so popular that part of the congregation was forced to stand outside the church tent in the broiling summer sun. The school was usually well attended and occasioned no special comment.

Black servants were allowed in the camp, and they were rationed. There was a town location nearby and black men were used for the more unpleasant camp work but of the women and children we know nothing.

The closing down of the camp was a slow process as the women and children were not sent home until they had been reunited with their menfolk, some of whom had been on commando, while others had to return from the overseas prisoner-of-war camps. Many of the families also had to be repatriated from the Natal camps so there was constant movement in and out in the last months of the year. Many of the inmates were not anxious to return home, the superintendent explained, because they had no proper shelter on their burnt farms and no cattle to plough. They were supplied with a tent and a month’s rations to carry them on and they gradually departed. By the end of October there were only 87 left in the camp. The camp seems to have closed by the end of November as there is no report for December.13


Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.341-343; Cd 853, pp. 48-54; Cd 902, pp.57-59.

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

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp.323-325.

Ladies’ Commission report, Cd 893, pp.140-145.

1 Cd 819, pp. 342-343; NASA, DBC 11, May 1902.

2 Cd 819, p. 342; Cd 893, p.141.

3 NASA, DBC 12, January 1902; DBC 11, June 1902.

4 Cd 819, p.342-343; Cd 853, p.52, 53; Cd 902, p.59; Cd 893, p.142.

5 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901; DBC 12, January, February 1902

6 NASA, DBC 12, April 1902; DBC 11, July 1902.

7 NASA, DBC 14, November 1901.

8 NASA, DBC 12, January, April 1902.

9 NASA, DBC 12, January, April 1902.

10 Cd, 819, pp.323-235.

11 NASA, DBC 12, February 1902.

12 NASA, DBC 12, February 1902.

13 NASA, DBC 13, October, November 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.