BCCDBritish Concentration Camps
of the South African War

East London

East London was one of the camps which was established only in 1902. By the end of 1901 the Ladies Committee had reported on the camps. One of their concerns was that some camps had become too large, contributing to the high mortality, and they felt that they should be broken up. By this time, too, the Colonial Office had taken firm control of the administration of the camps and was introducing substantial reforms. Lord Milner wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in December 1901, explaining his thinking. He wanted the camps thinned out and, if necessary, transplanted. The overflow was to go to Natal and, in the case of the ORC camps, to the Cape Colony. New camps were to be established at Port Elizabeth, East London and Port Alfred (in fact East London, Uitenhage and Kabusie), each containing 2,000 to 3,000 people. Tents were to be abolished in favour of huts, using excess military material. Priority was to be given to families whose men were still on commando, and those who had ‘forfeited their right to considerate treatment by misbehaviour’. There was, then, a punitive element to these coast camps but, above all, Milner wanted to reduce the ‘deplorable’ mortality.1

Plans were all very well, but the Cape was an self-governing colony and Sir Gordon Sprigg, the prime minister, was extremely jealous of its independence. He objected strongly to the notion of imperial enclaves over which he had no jurisdiction and it was some time before Milner could persuade him that such camps should remain part of the ORC system.2 Even after the ministers had agreed to the establishment of camps under imperial control, there remained the question of discipline. Would the camp inmates fall under Cape law or under martial law? Who would guard the camps – the Cape Police or the local town guards? How would breaches of discipline be tried? Would special legislation have to be introduced? (One reason for all these questions was not that the camp women were particularly unmanageable but that, in this male-dominated world, there was an automatic assumption that ‘refugees’ equalled ‘men’, and men had to be controlled.). Eventually everything was settled satisfactorily and construction went forward under the eye of Louis Mansergh, the secretary for public works in the Cape Colony. Relations with local authorities was also tricky. The East London merchants were indignant that tenders for the camps were opened only to ORC businesses, especially as the town had made the use of its commonage available for free. Here, too, feelings had to be soothed.3

The job of building the camp was a large one and the tenders estimated a cost of £22,000 per camp with three months for construction. This suggested far more grandiose plans than those of the original camps and the authorities were worried about the time it would take. Major Goold Adams, the ORC deputy administrator, wired Mansergh urgently that ‘We cannot delay creation of camp on account of expense’. By February construction was under way.4 Work was speeded up and East London received its first inmates in April 1902, from Heilbron camp with its unruly women A month later it was announced that the camp was full and could take no more.5

In theory these were white camps but there were a small number of ‘natives’ in East London camp, about fifteen, mainly children. These were people ‘in-between’, for whom there was no place. They slept in, or under, the houses, resulting in overcrowding, Inspector Tonkin complained. Although such children usually formed part of family groups, the young Boer women refused to attend them when they were ill and disease was rarely reported, Tonkin believed, because their removal would mean the loss of servants. He wanted the children sent to a location, though who should care for them he did not specify. There is no indication that they were sent away.6

Although food supply was much easier at the coast, malnutrition was still a consideration, especially in the winter months when vegetables were scarce. Many of the Heilbron people had scurvy ‘in their system’ and it was decided to issue them with lime juice – the age-old remedy for vitamin C deficiency. Since the Boers disliked its sourness, the authorities agreed that it should be sweetened. By the end of the month the inmates were also receiving 3,000 lbs a week of fresh vegetables. 300 pints of fresh milk were supplied daily by a local farmer. Condensed milk, sweetened and unsweetened was also used.7 While health in East London camp was not bad – there was none of the terrible mortality of the previous year – many people suffered from persistent minor ailments. Bronchial disorders became more common as winter crept in. Coughs, colds and ‘camp sickness’ were widespread and there was some typhoid fever. Some of the huts were infested with bugs. Impetigo (a skin infection) was pervasive amongst the children who also suffered from ear and nasal discharges. His attempts to combat these ills may explain why the superintendent was reprimanded for his extravagant purchase of vegetables .8

Life in the camp must have been something like life in a boarding school. A list of regulations ranged from basic sanitary prohibitions and the time that lights should be out to controls over dogs and poultry. A growing concern was the use of Boer medical remedies and in East London camp no-one was allowed to give any medication without the permission of the MO.9

By no means everyone liked the superintendent, A. Dyason. At one stage he was accused of ‘high-handed, churlish’ treatment of the Dutch Reformed Church minister, the Rev. Dommissie and his wife, which led to a reprimand from chief superintendent, who warned him that it was bad policy to show discourtesy to Dutch officials of this standing ‘as we wish to create a good feeling with them’ – a comment which was most interesting for the insight it gave into the attitude of the British administration to the Boers.10 Nevertheless, Dyason appears to have been competent and there were few other complaints about his management of the camp.

Indeed, in May 1902 a ‘commission’ of sympathetic Afrikaners visited East London camp and were favourable impressed.

‘ On our visit we were most pleasantly surprised that the authorities had actually done so much in a very short time. Everything in the camp was in ship shape order. Water for drinking and domestic purposes could not be better and purer, the houses are comfortable and the camp hospital leaves nothing to be desired and what speaks volumes for the sanitation of the camp is the fact that the hospital is almost empty. The few inmates all state that they receive every attention’.

Although he had reservations about some aspects of the sanitation, Inspector Tonkin also reported well on East London camp. He was concerned about the large number of fowls kept in the houses. They should be removed to properly constructed runs, he urged, especially as he suspected that they harboured diphtheria (there had been a case in the camp). When John Buchan, Lord Milner’s secretary, visited the camp in May 1902 he, too, was ‘immensely struck by the perfection of the management’. He was a little concerned about the damage done by wood-eating ticks (as he called them) and recommended that the huts be painted. He was also anxious about the number of visitors from the nearby town and urged that more police be provided to keep control.11

East London camp had barely been established before the war ended on 31 May 1902. Repatriation Boards were set up to administer the return to the farms. This involved a good deal of paper work for the camp staff who were expected to supply information on the inmates. Confidentially, the Repatriation Board, ever paranoid, wanted to know who the ‘rabid anti-Britishers’ were, since they felt that such people would cause ‘a great deal of mischief’ if they went home too soon. The superintendent, however, was unwilling to give such information. ‘I may state generally that the majority of the Heilbron people are loyal and the majority of the Winburg people rather disloyal’, he declared but he would go no further in tale-telling.12

East London camp was the first of the coastal camps to be closed and, as early as June 1902 plans were afoot to merge it with Kabusie (King William’s Town). Families were sent to the camps closest to their homes, where their husbands would join them before going out to the farms; women and children were not allowed to return without male protection ‘on account of the unsettled state of the country and the presence of natives’. By July the process was well under way, although Inspector Tonkin complained of the slowness, partly because of the lack of trains available and because the inmates had accumulated a considerable quantity of goods. By 24 August 1902 the camp was closed.13


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

SRC files in the Free State Archives Repository {FSAR].

See also the excellent website: http://knowledge4africa.com/eastlondon/boer-war05.htm.

1 NAUK, CO 879/73/636, 42445/S, 1/12/1901.

2 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 1147, 13/12/1901.

3 NAUK, CO 879/75/687, 4506, 10/1/1902; Cd 934, p21; CO 879/77/697, 6764, 24/1/1902.

4 NASA, HC 86, 26/3/1902.

5 NAUK, CO 879/77/697, 7645, 31/1/1902; 8621, 7/2/190235; FSAR, SRC 20/7543, 17/2/1902; SRC 20/7563, 18/2/1902; SRC 23/8453, 8/5/1902.

6 FSAR, SRC 24/8584, 8/5/1902.

7 FSAR, SRC 22/8180, 14/4/1902; SRC 23/8317/21/4/1902; SRC 23/8305, 17/4/1902; SRC 22/8160, 12/5/1902.

8 FSAR, SRC 25/8745, 16/6/1902; SRC 25/8896, 16/6/1902; SRC 26/9168, 10/7/1902.

9 FSAR, SRC 24/8551, 15/5/1902.

10 FSAR, SRC 25/8760, 6/6/1902.

11 FSAR, SRC 23/8393, 5/5/1902; SRC 24/8584, 8/5/1902; SRC 24/8511, 10/5/1902; SRC 24/8644, 26/5/1902.

12 FSAR, SRC 23/8433, 15/5/1902; SRC 25/8833, 12/6/1902.

13 FSAR, SRC 25/8922, 21/6/1902; SRC 26/9107, 15/7/1902; SRC 26/9292, 16/7/1902; SRC 33/10775, 23/2/1903.

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.