BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War


Belfast was one of the later camps, started by the civilian administration rather than the military, between 4 and 10 June 1901. The camp reports only give the British side of the story and we often have to read between the lines to understand the realities of camp life. The first superintendent, G.F. Esselen, did not remain long as he was transferred to Irene. The reports of his replacement, David Murray, suggest that he was a kindly man, but not as efficient as Graumann at Barberton, for instance. He refused either to stop rations as a punishment or to put the recalcitrant into a separate wired enclosure, as occurred in many camps. Unlike most camps, Belfast had no camp police (usually appointed from the inmates) until March 1902, but the need to isolate the potentially infectious newcomers made such a step necessary. However, the Ladies Committee commented on the dirty and ragged appearance of the people and their dwellings. The first camp inmates were described as being fairly well-off, able to afford the goods at Poynton’s store. The inmates’ money did not last long, however; by September 1901 most had exhausted their savings and were left only with SAR ‘blue-backs’ which were useless as currency. As in most camps, there were some black inmates as well, a total of fifty-four in August 1901, including twenty children. The black men were critical to the running of the camp, as Murray admitted. ‘I get an immense amount of work done by the natives, and if it were not for them, some of the departments of the camp would suffer.’ As an encouragement, they were given fresh meat if they were considered to have done a fair day’s work.1

Belfast camp was not easy to administer since it was scattered thtough the damaged town. In the beginning accommodation included houses, the Dopper church and the ‘township’ (this was probably not the black township which was then more usually called a ‘location’). By the time that Dr Kendal Franks visited the camp in late August 1901 tents had been erected, some in a square in the middle of the town, others on a vacant site to the west, while more were to be pitched further north. When the Ladies Committee arrived in October 1901, about two-thirds of the camp inmates were still living in houses. Town and camp were surrounded by blockhouses and the people could move freely within these limits. The authorities were often edgy, however, for Belfast was often close to the lines of fighting. On 3 September 1901 ten of the ‘more prominent’ members of the camp absconded (presumably to join the commandos) and the camp was raided by the Boers on 15 September, for the goods in Poynton’s store. In the fracas one woman was killed and two children were wounded. Women had been detected sending off clothing and food from the camp via black messengers (some had been described by Esselen as being ‘very bitter’). Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that control became fairly tight.2

The attack on the camp had another effect as well. The women were now nervous about remaining in their tents at night and moved into the houses which were often already overcrowded. The result was considerable squalor and Murray was convinced that the rate of sickness was much higher in the houses. There was growing pressure to move all the people into tents. Finally the inmates of the original camp were moved to the larger area while the western camp (no. 2) was kept for the families of joiners. Somewhat unusually two men from one of the commandos were allowed to inspect the camp. They were so satisfied, Murray claimed, that one of the promptly surrendered. By March 1902 the camp was described as comprising a main camp, a Scouts (National Scouts) camp, observation (for new arrivals) and isolation camps and the hospital. By this time the town houses were occupied solely by the families of the National Scouts and by the administrative staff. Despite the fact that the National Scouts and their families comprised nearly a third of the camp inmates, there was surprisingly little friction between them and the rest, or so Murray believed.

Milk seems to have been readily available and, as early as August 1901 Murray was issuing bottles to all the children and old people. The sick all received extra rations. Public ovens were provided to bake bread. Kendal Franks noted approvingly that the people were not allowed to hang up meat in their tents or houses to make biltong, as happened in other camps. The people were provided with raw coffee beans as they preferred to roast their own, which Murray believed helped to disinfect the tents. (One does not often associate the camps with the pleasant aroma of coffee!) By September 1901, as in other camps, Belfast was reduced to using tinned corned beef but Murray commented that the people, being stock breeders, understood that the meat would improve after the spring rains. By this time some were cultivating vegetables but the delayed rains were unhelpful. Nor did the quality of the meat improve and by December 1901 frozen meat was being issued. The old men, Murray observed, were always interested in the condition of the meat. ‘They are surprised to learn the distance it has come, and compare the weights with the Africander Cattle to which they have been accustomed.’

The problems of water supply and sanitation indicate some of difficulties with which camp administrators had to contend. Initially water was taken from the local wells supplying the town, which had had a population of only 500, compared with a camp of three times that size. The water was muddy and the pumps were old and kept breaking down. Murray found a good spring some distance from the camp and planned to install a steam engine to pump the water into tanks in the camp. The Ladies Committee was critical of the way in which the camp was cleaned but Murray pointed out that he first had to clear away the ‘insanitary accumulations’ of Belfast for the past ten years. The people living in houses could not be regulated as strictly as those in tents in a more conventional tent so that rubbish soon built up.

While sanitation may not have been perfect, a church and school were started quite soon after the camp was formed. The school had a setback, however, when the headmaster, J.J. Malan, was arrested in Middelburg, where he went to attend his brother’s funeral. He was replaced by an energetic Scot, Mr Munro, who introduced adult education classes for young men who wished to learn bookkeeping or to improve their English. The children appeared bright and interested, the Ladies Committee reported, while Mr Munro said that he had never been so happy in his life. Unfortunately he was moved from the camps to Lydenburg in April 1902. In addition, the local commandant, Major Bulman, took an unusual interest in the camp, providing regular entertainment for the inmates. He supplied the boys with footballs and the girls with skipping ropes and ‘in a hundred ways has won the affection and gratitude of all in the camp’. Football was popular with the boys who took little interest in the cricket set later provided for them. The men, however, played several ‘interesting’ matches against the National Scouts, ‘which have proved a source of enjoyment on both sides’, Murray reported in May 1902. Unusually, a school was also established for the black children and by October 1901 it was reported that there 225 attending.

Health was not very good in Belfast camp. By June there was ‘much sickness’ and measles arrived in August 1901. The Transvaal Hotel was converted into a hospital to provide for the measles patients and this helped to reduce the mortality, the authorities believed. Nevertheless it seems to have been somewhat crowded since the small children shared their beds, with one at the head and the other at the bottom. Medical comforts were issued lavishly, the Ladies Committee complained. These included ‘Chollet’s compressed vegetables’, known to be ‘the best and most expensive preparation of this kind’. This may have been one of the camps which relied heavily on alcohol as a ‘stimulant’ in the hospital since the Ladies urged that those who were sick in the tents should receive no more than 2 ozs of brandy a day. By 1902, as in most camps, health had improved considerably. In April there were an average of five people a day who were attended to in the tents, and about twenty a day attending the dispensary for minor ailments. The majority of the sick, by this time, were admitted into the hospital. The greatest problem was that prevalence of enteric which Murray found difficult to eradicate. In an effort to do so he engaged in substantial engineering works to improve the water supply, abandoning the town fountain in favour of his own and replacing all the pipes. To this he added boilers and coolers which were placed through the camp and town to ensure the inhabitants received boiled water. Filtering beds were introduced to deal with the sewage. These improvements seem to have been successful for in May 1902 Murray was able to report that there were no more enteric cases. The medical staff treated the black camp inmates as well. Although little information was provided, in August 1902 we are told that three men were being cared for, one with ‘necrosis of tibia’, possibly from an accident, one with ‘suppurating bubo of the groin’ which may have been an indication of infection, and one with burns.

Despite the concerns about health in Belfast camp, the statistics tell a slightly different story. The total number of deaths was considerable lower than the Transvaal average, although the twin peaks and the fairly long duration of the epidemics point to problems, partly with typhoid as well as measles. (The green peak, indicating women’s deaths, and the time of year – summer – both suggest some typhoid).

The death rates give a slightly different story. Broadly Belfast deaths were about the same as the Transvaal average and the duration of the epidemics is also similar. The peak of the measles epidemic was a little earlier and the typhoid outbreak was fairly serious, especially amongst the women. When mothers died, so did their children, for there was then no-one really to care for the little ones, however kind neighbours and relatives might be. The second green peak is not important (except of course for the people concerned) for it indicated a small number of deaths in a small population.

When peace was declared at the end of May 1902, thanksgiving services were held in the church. The following month the coronation of the new king, Edward VII, had to be postponed because of an operation for appendicitis and a special intercessional service was held for his speedy recovery. This was well attended and the ‘interest and earnestness manifested was very marked’, Murray commented optimistically. Despite this setback, the coronation festivities were held, stretching over two days, celebrated largely with picnics and sporting events. The men coming in from the commandos found the events a revelation, Murray believed, and participated enthusiastically.

The men who trickled in from the commandos, were often clothed in rags patched with skins and hides. Murray took the trouble to provide them with warm clothing as June was cold. This, he hoped, would have a positive result, for it would ‘go far to remove any misconceptions they may have had, and will materially assist in their pacification and give them confidence in the future’. Nevertheless, he had to increase the number of police since the people apparently believed that the authority of the camp would now be relaxed; the police dispelled this idea effectively, Murray reported. In general, however, he was positive about the response to the peace. The people recognised that they were now part and parcel of the British Empire, he believed. The men took the oath of allegiance eagerly, and they ‘expressed their gratitude that they had been allowed to observe their neutrality unmolested, and gladly took up their rights of citizenship’, from which the women were, of course, excluded. Yet the attitude of the Boers may not have been quite as amenable as Murray hoped. In August he noted that a few were wearing the ‘black and white ribbons’ (a sign of resistance, to judge from the context) though these were gradually being removed..

Repatriation was slow because of a shortage of transport. Somewhat unusually, Murray allowed some of the women to return to their homes before their men arrived from the overseas prisoner-of-war camps. They felt that they could do a lot of work turning over their gardens before their husbands joined them, he explained. Good rains encouraged the growth of early crops which eased the first return home. The end of the war was a relief for the black camp inmates, too. They also returned to their homes as soon as they could, making it difficult for the more unpleasant sanitary work of the camp to be carried out. The camp was finally closed in December 1902 after a land settlement scheme made it possible for the most indigent families to return to the land.


Published camp reports: Cd 819, pp.156-158, 229-232, 345-6; Cd 853, pp. 54-59; Cd 902, pp.60-65.

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

Dr Kendal Franks report, Cd 819, pp.326-329.

Ladies Committee report, Cd 893, pp.151-156.

1 Cd 819, pp.156-157, 326, 345. March 1902,

2 Cd 819, pp.156-157, 326-329.

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.